June 6, 2019

When a close relative has cancer, books can help children cope

Most adults realize that cancer is a complex disease, but it can be even harder for children to understand the situation surrounding a cancer diagnosis and treatment. When the disease is affecting a close relative, most parents wonder how much they should tell their kids about cancer.

"I think for parents, they have worries about how to break the news to their children and whether they will say the right thing or be able to get the words out," said UW Health psychologist Lori DuBenske, PhD.

Regardless of the child's age, talking your kids about cancer is important for maintaining trust in your relationship. Psychologists recommend many different forms of media to help teach parents, patients and siblings not only about a cancer diagnosis, but how to help them cope, as well.

"Children at different ages have different cognitive abilities that affect their ability to understand and make sense of their situation, so age-appropriate material can facilitate the best understanding at their level" DuBenske said. "It also guides parents in providing that information, to minimize overwhelming a child, or reducing unnecessary fear or distress or confusion."

When talking to kids about cancer, experts say that parents can start with what the children already know and emphasize that, unlike many other illnesses kids have encountered, cancer is not contagious and does not resolve on its own within a few weeks. Having good communication with your kids about the disease underscores the message that cancer is not anyone's fault nor a punishment. Parents can then use familiar examples or analogies to explain the disease and treatment.

Below, UW Health psychologists share some children's books that can help anchor these difficult discussions, as well as some books for parents looking to help younger children. Most of these books are available through the Madison Public Library and Gilda's Club Madison, which has a resource library of its own and hosts programs dedicated to helping children and teens cope with cancer.

This list includes books recommended for children up to age 12. Books that are lying around the house are great for younger children to pick up and read, and might help encourage discussion. Teens tend to do better with online resources or forums rather than books. If you have a child who is affected by a parent's or other close relative's cancer, please discuss it with the oncology care team or with your child's pediatrician so that they can directly address the child's needs.

Books to help children understand cancer

Ages 0-4

  • Sammy's Mommy Has Cancer, by Sherry Kohlenberg

This book follows a little boy named Sammy as he learns about his mom's cancer diagnosis and treatment.

  • Once Upon a Hopeful Night, by Risa Yaffe and Troy Cramer

This book helps parents talk to their kids about cancer and explain the complicated situation in a caring, sensitive manner that children can understand.

Ages 4-8

  • The Paper Chain, by Claire Blake

This picture book describes what happens when Marcus' and Ben's mom is diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoes surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Dealing with the treatment is sometimes difficult and sad for their family. Eventually their mom gets better, but her doctors still check up on her for any signs that the cancer has returned.

  • Tickles Tabitha's Cancer-tankerous Mommy, by Amelia Frahm

This award-winning children's book was written and published by a cancer survivor and provides a delightful but honest perspective on surviving cancer.

  • Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings: When someone you love has cancer ... a hopeful, helpful book for kids, by Ellen McVicker and Nanci Hersh

This illustrated children's book describes a little boy's perspective on his mother's cancer and has empowering language for children encouraging them to see the disease as a family experience.

Ages 9-12

  • Our Family Has Cancer, Too!, by Christine Clifford

This illustrated children's book describes how a middle-schooler named Tim and his little brother learn about their mother's cancer diagnosis and help her throughout treatment.

  • The Year My Mother Was Bald, by Ann Speltz and Kate Sternberg

Written in the form of a young girl's diary, this story follows Clare as she describes her feelings and her family's experiences in dealing with her mom's cancer diagnosis and treatment.

  • Our Mom Has Cancer, by Adrienne Ackerman and Abigail Ackerman (American Cancer Society Publication)

This story recounts what it was like for Abagail and Adrienne during the year that their mom was being treated for breast cancer.

  • Because Someone I Love Has Cancer: Kids' Activity Book (American Cancer Society publication)

This activity book includes crayons, a guide for parents, group activities and individual exercises that can help kids find their inner strengths and enhance their self-esteem.

A book for parents

  • How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness, by Kathleen McCue and Ron Bonn

UW Health psychologist Erin Costanzo, PhD, highly recommends this book as a guide for parents who want to know how to help their children with a patient's cancer. The book is based on both research as well as clinical experience and breaks down advice in terms of the child's developmental level and the phase of the disease.