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Family and Community, Navigating Emotions

Dear Iris: Sharing the News with My Grandchild

Dear Iris,

I was recently diagnosed with a serious cancer that has a high likelihood of coming back. I’m close with my 7-year-old granddaughter and want to share information about my cancer, but my son is concerned the news would only make her worry. I want to respect my son’s wishes, but I also don’t want to keep something this important from my granddaughter. They’re coming for a visit soon and I’m concerned she’ll notice my energy is lagging during our daily park trips. She’s a perceptive kid and I don’t want her to learn about this from someone else or damage the trust I have with her. Any recommendations? 

L


Dear L,

It sounds like you’re approaching this dilemma with much thought and respect, and the question itself reflects your deep care for your son and granddaughter. Sharing information about your cancer can be tricky, especially when family members may not want to discuss or face the issue and when children are involved.

I would recommend starting from a place of curiosity with your son and exploring his worries about sharing information with his daughter. Acknowledging his own worry and sadness may allow space for more open discussion within the family. Then the two of you can consider how to best include your granddaughter.  

 Would specific scripting feel helpful, or sharing the news together? If so, a few communication pointers I can offer are: 

  • Sharing information doesn’t need to be all or nothing. You can start by sharing some information and add more as needed or as questions arise.  

  • Offer realistic reassurances such as, “Grandma is working closely with her doctor to get the best care possible.”  

  • Consider using the words “cancer” or “tumor” for clarity. Using euphemisms such as “sickness” or “medicine” can unintentionally add fear or confusion if/when a child or parent is sick with something other than cancer.  

  • All emotions are valid, and it’s ok (even healthy) to express them in front of children when sharing tough information. You can also reassure the child that it’s not their responsibility to care for you and that you will seek out and have support for yourself.  

  • Remind children that they did not cause the cancer and it’s not contagious.  

 It may also help to share the reasons behind why you’d like your granddaughter to know about the seriousness of your cancer.  Children often sense changes and anxiety within a family, and age-appropriate and direct communication can be a relief and help a child feel included. Rather than trying to interpret the changes and worry that they're observing, sharing with a child can help them make sense of what is happening and give language to the experience. As you mentioned, she may notice the change in your energy, and it can be helpful to anticipate these changes to prepare her ahead of time. This can invite problem solving about how to still spend meaningful time together.  

Missed last week? Dear Iris: Another Referral

Phoebe Souza, MSW, LCSW, MPH, OSW-C, APHSW-C

Clinical Lead – Mental Health

Iris Oncology

Phoebe Souza is an oncology social worker with a passion for supporting individuals and families coping with illness. She has a decade of oncology experience bringing curiosity, creativity, and compassion to her clinical work. She has her Oncology Social Work Certification (OSW-C) and Advanced Palliative and Hospice Social Work – Certification (APHSW-C) and has worked for cancer centers in Boston, MA and Portland, OR. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.