Communicating Serious Adult Illness to Children

Betty R. Ferrell, PhD, RN


April 02, 2013

What to Tell the Children?

Alex M. is a 40-year-old man who was recently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Alex is single and has never married but has been the "favorite uncle" to his sister Jan's children, ages 6 and 13. Alex has played an even greater role in the lives of the children over the past 2 years because their father, who is on active duty in the military, was deployed to the Middle East. Alex and Jan are very close, and he has stepped in to help with the children, even relocating to live just a few miles away.

Jan approaches the nurse on the oncology unit where Alex has been admitted and tells the nurse that she is aware of Alex's diagnosis and has brought the children to visit. The children are in the waiting room because Jan wanted to alert the staff and request that they say nothing about cancer in front of the children. Jan and Alex have agreed to tell the children that he has pneumonia and will be better soon. Jan explains that her husband will be back in 2 months and she just can't face telling the children the truth until then.