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Open communication is best when sharing news of your cancer with your teenage or young adult children

Open communication is best when sharing news of your cancer with your teenage or young adult children

'Every year around 21,000 teenagers and young adults in Australia are told their parent has cancer. The need to care for their parents often disrupts these young people’s efforts for increased social, emotional and financial independence.

Young people typically rise to the challenge, wanting to be a source of strength and support for their parents. This can make it hard for parents to recognise when their child might need help.

And for a parent, talking to children about their cancer may be the only thing more difficult than facing their own diagnosis. But open and honest communication about cancer’s impact can help everyone cope better.


Our yet-to-be-published research, presented at the recent Multinational Association of Supportive Care in Cancer conference, showed young people whose parents have cancer report levels of psychological distress three to six times higher than others their age.


...the number one unmet need reported by young people was honest information about their parent’s cancer – highlight the importance of good family communication in buffering distress during this difficult time.

Providing young people with information – including diagnosis, medical tests, treatment, side effects, likely outcomes and chances of recovery – in a family environment that fosters open communication is one way parents can support their children.


...guidelines will include tips such as:

- being open and honest about the cancer diagnosis and likely impact on the young person

- talking to young people in a way that is age appropriate but still using correct terminology

- balancing fact-sharing with hope for the future

- helping young people find reliable and accurate information about cancer. This might include locating support resources or helping them talk to a medical professional

- normalising emotions and sharing feelings

- encouraging young people to seek extra support from professionals or their peers when they need it

- allowing for time off from talking about cancer. Young people need time to be young people.'

Pandora Patterson, Adjunct Associate Professor, Cancer Nursing Research Unit, University of Sydney, shares how to help your children through this difficult time for them from recent research:


Photo: Last night I had the incredible experience of walking along the fence line with these three kangaroos bounding along in the scrub keeping pace with me on my right and another on my left. Eventually the one on the left jumped over the fence to join those in the photo.

5 Replies

Nice photo Neil and good story. I have been very open to my two sons one is 12 and the other is 15 since diagnosed last year. I didn't think hiding it from them was right. I let them know not to worry cause this is a treatable disease and it's something I have to learn how to live with & manage. I have twin girls 7 years old. I didn't tell them yet because I didnt think they were ready. Maybe when they get a little older.

I really appreciate all you do.

Best wishes,



It is difficult. I told my children (at time of my diagnosis both in mid 20's), the first time they were both home after my diagnosis. I didn't want to tell them on the phone, or singly. Luckily, they both happened to be home a weekend soon after the diagnosis.

I think it was one of the most difficult discussions I've ever had, mainly because it made me feel like I was letting them down. Their response was very positive.

Now, four years on we don't really talk about it. I mention it when I've had a checkup but that's about the only time it comes up.



Thank you Neil for all your wealth of knowledge but also for the wonderful pictures you take.



Certainly telling the family was the best thing I did. They feel free to talk about it when they want.

They understand if I retire for a rest which happens.

They check before visiting if anyone in the family is or has been unwell.

A win win.

Only issue is very old and young family. Remember they are likely to know something is wrong - mine did they just did not know what and were relieved when it was explained.

That said everyone's situation is different so you have to decide for your self.


But in my experience make sure you tell them all at the same time roughly. I am newly diagnosed and on watch and wait. Had discussed with my older son and my daughter immediately . Had held off telling the younger for a week or so, as I felt he would find it more difficult to deal with. Unfortunately he has taken that delay slightly wrongly, and keeps asking me if I am sure I am not hiding anything else from him, and that I am really alright. Yes, yes, yes. I need that reassurance too! Yes.


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