How Veterans Can Talk to Kids About Cancer

U.S. veterans are at a greater risk of developing certain types of cancer, including mesothelioma and lung cancer. A cancer diagnosis is devastating to family members — especially for children and teenagers. However, veterans can learn how to talk to children about their cancer diagnosis to help ease their worries.

What Veterans With Mesothelioma Need To Know About Coronavirus

Telling Children a Veteran Has Cancer

U.S. veterans may be parents, grandparents, or other close relatives. Learning that they have cancer can bring a lot of uncertainty to their family members, including young children and teenagers.

Beyond children's love for relatives, they may hold veterans in especially high reverence and view them as stronger or braver than others because of their military service. Thus, knowing a loved one has mesothelioma or another type of cancer can be very stressful and traumatic for children.

Many cancer support organizations recommend telling kids the truth about this diagnosis, regardless of how difficult it may be. Doing so will allow children to process their emotions in a healthy way rather than keeping them bottled up.

“It’s hard to keep cancer a secret. Your kids probably already know something’s wrong, so it’s best that they hear it from you.”
—Shelby Doyle, MD Anderson Social Work Counselor

Tips on Talking About Cancer With Kids

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recommends telling children that a loved one has cancer soon after they are diagnosed. That way, children get the news immediately (and not secondhand).

Here are some tips on talking to a child about cancer:

  • Assure them it is not their fault. Younger children may feel guilty when they learn a veteran has cancer — even though they didn’t cause it. Help them understand this as best they can.
  • Explain what cancer is. It might be a good idea to explain to younger children that cancer isn’t contagious. You might be able to give more details about what to expect after the diagnosis to older children and teens.
  • Use direct language. Speaking as simply as possible will help the child understand what’s happening. Saying that a loved one is sick or has a cold could confuse them or make them think they could catch a veteran’s cancer.
  • Validate them. Make sure that children understand that it’s OK to feel however they feel after learning a veteran they love has cancer.

What to Know Before the Talk

There’s no easy way to tell children that a veteran they love has cancer. However, there are some steps you can take to prepare before sharing the news.

The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recommends:

  • Encouraging the children to ask questions
  • Expressing your emotions with the children — you don’t need to bottle them up
  • Knowing how you may react during the talk (for example, you may start to cry)
  • Making sure you have enough time to address your child’s questions or concerns
  • Speaking naturally to the children
  • Talking through any concerns about telling children with your spouse, family members, and/or a therapist

Additionally, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute suggests not speaking to a child about the diagnosis if you aren’t ready to talk about it in general. You may also want another family member to join the discussion for support.

Children’s Ages and Cancer Talks

Depending on their age, you might need to take different approaches to talking with children about cancer.

Learn how to tailor your conversations below:

  • Toddlers and young children: Because of their age, these children may not fully understand what cancer is or may need to be reminded multiple times. Many of their concerns may be about themselves (such as if they caused it, how their life could change, and if it is contagious). Use basic language to explain what is happening and help them feel safe.
  • Pre-teens: Kids age 8 or older may have more questions about the diagnosis that should be answered. Children in this age group will likely better understand what is happening and ask more specific questions.
  • Teenagers: Since teens will likely have a good understanding of cancer, they may be reluctant to ask questions out of fear of getting upset (or upsetting you). Make sure to meet them where they are and openly discuss how much they want to know about the diagnosis.

Talking to Children About a Cancer Diagnosis

A mother and daughter talking

Speaking with children about a cancer diagnosis is very important. Kids may react differently to the news that a loved one has cancer.

After learning a loved one has cancer, kids may:

  • Become withdrawn or depressed
  • Feel angry and act out
  • Feel guilty, anxious, or afraid
  • Have issues with school performance
  • Try to always be around their parents

Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) also notes that children may suffer from physical symptoms like headaches, loss of appetite, and sleeplessness.

Regardless of how a child takes the news, remind them that they will always have love and support in their life. Further, if a child seems to be struggling, there are resources you can access to help them.

VA Coronavirus Resources

Talking About a Cancer Prognosis With Kids

A prognosis is the expected outcome of a disease. A mesothelioma prognosis is often very poor since the cancer spreads rapidly without symptoms. Patients generally live between a few months and a few years.

When talking to children about prognosis:

  • Be honest but optimistic. A child may ask if their loved one will die. Reassure them that while some people with cancer die, doctors and other medical caregivers will help their loved one.
  • Keep them updated. A prognosis can change over time — sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Depending on the child’s age, telling them what to expect may be a good idea so they aren’t surprised.
  • Reassure them. Children may worry about who’ll be there for them if a loved one is sick or passes away. Make sure children know that they will be cared for no matter what.
Regular Coronavirus Updates

Cancer and Children’s Daily Routines

Cancer can easily disrupt a child’s home life. Children can be overwhelmed by hospital stays for treatments and physical changes in a loved one. This is especially true if the U.S. veteran with cancer is the child’s primary caregiver.

Here are some tips from CTCA on maintaining a healthy home life for kids after a cancer diagnosis:

  • Establish a new routine with the child after your cancer diagnosis (based on when treatments will be needed, etc.).
  • Let children help around the house if they want to (for example, they can help you move groceries).
  • Give children choices (such as picking out what to wear) to give them a sense of control and comfort.
  • Play with the kids and have fun with them, but also make sure to discipline them if they act up.
  • Make sure to note any severe changes in a child’s behavior and get them help if needed.

Talking to Children About Cancer Treatments

Treatments for mesothelioma and other cancers are essential to living longer, but they also bring changes that may upset children. Learn how to talk to kids about mesothelioma treatments.
Blue illustration of a chemotherapy bag in a circle.

Cancer Treatment Options and Goals

Which treatments a U.S. veteran will receive depends on their type of cancer, when they were diagnosed, and many other factors.

Further, cancer treatments have different goals depending on how far the cancer has spread. Some treatments help patients live longer, while others simply ease the pain.

Children may have questions about the mesothelioma treatments a loved one is getting, and it’s best to answer these in a way they can easily understand.

A blue illustration of radiation therapy

Side Effects

The side effects of cancer treatments can change how a person looks.

For example, a veteran with mesothelioma may lose their hair due to chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Make sure that young children know these side effects aren’t contagious to ease any possible fears they might have.

Blue graphic of a scalpel. Illustrates the concept of mesothelioma surgery.

Success Rates

Mesothelioma is a very aggressive cancer so it may or may not come back after treatment. If the cancer does return, make sure that children are informed and understand that more treatments can be used to help their loved one.

It may also be a good idea to reassure children that U.S. veterans with mesothelioma are in the best possible care. Civilian and military mesothelioma doctors are well-trained to treat this aggressive cancer.

Resources to Support a Child After a Veteran’s Cancer Diagnosis

Children can have a lot of anxiety and worries after a veteran they love has been diagnosed with cancer. This can cause them to suffer from behavioral or mood issues.

MD Anderson Cancer Center recommends getting help quickly if a child you love is having trouble dealing with a veteran’s cancer diagnosis.

Resources to support children include:

  • School counselors: Counselors can help the child work through their problems. They can also work with parents and caregivers to form a plan to address the child’s needs outside of school.
  • Support groups: Support groups are available for children whose loved ones have cancer. Support groups can help children connect with others in the same situation and help them feel less alone.
  • Military family resources: Military OneSource (a Department of Defense-sponsored site) offers resources to help military families raise children. Several programs are geared toward stress management and helping children feel calmer. View Military OneSource’s parent and family resources.
How Veterans With Mesothelioma Can Stay Safe From COVID-19

Help for Veterans and Families After a Cancer Diagnosis

It’s important to know that U.S. veterans aren’t alone when fighting mesothelioma and other cancers. From military benefits to medical care, there are many ways veterans can support themselves — as well as the families and children they love — after a mesothelioma diagnosis.

Support options for veterans and families include:

  • Mesothelioma claims: Veterans can file mesothelioma claims to get financial payouts from companies that made and sold asbestos-based products. These claims often award $1 million or more.
  • Trust fund payouts: Many companies that made asbestos-containing products created trust funds to pay those who were harmed. There’s over $30 billion in asbestos trust funds today. Veterans can access a portion of this compensation by filing a claim.
  • VA benefits: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers financial payouts and free or low-cost health care to military veterans. Further, some of the world’s top mesothelioma doctors treat veterans through the VA. Learn more about mesothelioma VA benefits.

Learn more about how these resources can help veterans and their families right now with a free veterans packet.

Veterans Support Team
Christopher Dryfoos PhotoWritten by:

Contributing Author

Christopher Dryfoos is a journalist and member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA). As the grandson of the U.S. Navy’s first forensic pathologist, he aims to help veterans with mesothelioma access needed care.

  1. American Cancer Society. "Helping Children When Someone They Know Has Cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed on April 13, 2023.
  2. CancerCare. "Talking to Children When a Loved One Has Cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed on April 13, 2023.
  3. City of Hope. "Talking to kids about cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed on April 13, 2023.
  4. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. "For Parents: Talking with Children About Cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed on April 13, 2023.
  5. MD Anderson Cancer Center. "How to talk to your kids about cancer." Retrieved from: Accessed on April 13, 2023.