How to Explain Cancer to a 7-Year-Old

When a 7-year-old hears about cancer, they can have a lot of questions. Explaining this sensitive matter can be tricky to a young child, but I’ve done some research on the best way to do it, and here is what I found.

How do you explain cancer to a 7-year-old? When explaining cancer to a 7 year-old, use terms and definitions that they can understand. If explaining is difficult, seek help from your doctors and care team. Be honest and keep them informed, no matter the diagnosis.

Seven-year-olds wait at the crossroads of child and preteen. How you explain cancer to them will depend largely on the child’s maturity, and whether a family member is affected or if the child is affected.

7-Year-Olds and Cancer

Cancer ripples like a pebble in the water from one life to another. Fear and anxiety grip the hearts of adult, and uncertainty abound in those younger than us.

To a child, cancer is the boogeyman incarnate. A silent destroyer that wreaks havoc on the peaceful and familiar. Explaining this unseen menace to one so young can be a daunting task.

Adults often feel inadequately prepared to deal with the life-changing aspects of cancer, how could they possibly explain it to a child?

7 year-olds lay on the precipice separating young children from preteens. Children at this age are often unaware of the harsher realities of mortality but can be capricious in their understanding and insights.

It is your job as a caregiver to unmask the boogeyman and explain cancer in terms so simple that a child will understand.

The Cancer Talk

How you explain cancer to your child will largely depend on their maturity. Judging how mature your child is can be difficult, but is of the utmost importance when the all-important cancer talk takes place.

Generally, children at 7 years of age are able to understand more complex definitions of cancer. Rather than giving the simple answer of, “Aunt Sally is sick.” A 7-year-old can understand a more complex definition.

Before we give an example of a clearer explanation, you may be wondering why the simple answer will not suffice. The answer is that it is better for a child to have a distinction in their mind between the life threatening illness that is cancer and a mundane disease like a cold.

Imagine that a week after telling your child that grandpa is “sick” and might not make it, your child falls ill himself. If your child has no proper distinction between cancer and his own sickness, you are sure to have a problem on your hands.

Imagine that a week after telling your child that grandpa is “sick” and might not make it, your child falls ill himself. If your child has no proper distinction between cancer and his own sickness, you are sure to have a problem on your hands.

A better definition of cancer may be given as follows:

“Cancer is when ‘sick’ cells in the body grow too fast and crowd out the healthy cells. Doctors use medicine to help the healthy cells fight the sick cells.”

Similar explanation could be used when describing treatments such as chemotherapy:

“Chemotherapy is the medicine that the good cells need in order to fight off the bad cells. One of the side effects of the medicine is that your hair falls out.”

Dispense enough information so that your child’s curiosity is satisfied, but don’t give so much that they feel overwhelmed.

A good gauge of how much information you should dispense is by the number of questions that your child asks. Answer all of your child’s questions truthfully and to the best of your knowledge.

Do not be ashamed if you can’t answer a question because you aren’t sure. Being open about those kinds of things will help foster open communication.

When your child stops asking questions, don’t think that the cancer discussions are behind you. Children of all ages have the right to know what is happening to a loved one.

Cancer is like a roller coaster. It has its ups and downs. Some battles are won and others take a turn for the worse. Don’t mistakenly think that by leaving your 7-year-old out of the loop you are somehow shielding them from pain.

Children are astute and can tell when something isn’t right. By leaving them in the dark you are actually doing them a far greater disservice than if you were to directly tell them the prognosis. The fear of the unknown can be even worse than painful cancer talks.

Children who have recently turned 7 may still lack the maturity to understand trying circumstances. If you feel your child isn’t mature enough to understand the complexities of cancer, feel free to give simpler explanations of what’s going on.

If you are at a loss of what to say to your 7-year-old, you can always solicit the advice of your doctors or your care group, if you have one.

Comforting Children Affected by Cancer

Cancer changes lives. It takes away the people we love, and even when someone survives the ordeal, huge lifestyle changes often follow. Throughout the experience, those affected by the ominous question, “what if?”. 

As a caregiver, it is one of your primary responsibilities to provide comfort and familiarity through these hard times. Here are some tips on how to best fulfill your role:

  • Don’t speak, listen. Adults, in an honest effort to help, will often dominate a conversation to the point where child is unable to voice their concerns. Listening is far more important in helping your child come to terms with what’s going on.
  •  Validate your child’s fears. Don’t demean your 7 year-old by dismissing their concerns. Cancer is a scary thing. A lot can change because of it. Help your child understand that it’s OK to be scared of what will happen, but that you can get through it together.
  •  Provide Physical Reassurance. Young children react well to physical touch. Hugging your 7 year-old, holding her hand, or letting her sit on your lap can often say more than your words ever could. 

Be aware of what works best for your own children. Above all be honest and forthright about how you answer your child’s questions. An open conversation will create a loving atmosphere to help assuage your child’s fears.

Helpful Resources

When a child or someone else you love has cancer it can be hard to relate with others. Luckily, there are plenty of online resources you can use to find information or support during your trials. Here are a few good site you may consider using:

  • is a national organization that helps people deal with the life-altering changes that happen because of cancer. From financial advice to emotional support, you can find a resource for just about anything.
  • is run by the American Cancer Society. It has a detailed guide on how to help your child cope with cancer.
  • is a website where anyone whose life has been touched by cancer can go and share their experience. Read stories from survivors and parents alike who have faced challenges similar to your own.


Cancer isn’t an easy thing to deal with. Often, your life will never be the same after you or someone you love has been inflicted with cancer. These difficulties only become more complicate when a child is involved.

Remember that there are no such things as perfect families. No one is “good” at dealing with cancer, but with patience and love, you can get through it.

Related Questions

What is a good book to help my child understand cancer? Someone I love is Sick is a simple story that can help your child understand cancer. It is an easy read and explains in very simple terms what the disease is and how it can affect a child’s life. If you are interested you can find out more about it here.

How long does a child usually have cancer? Cancer can last anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to a few years. It can be an arduous battle and taxing on the physical well being of a child.

Chemotherapy usually last 4 to 6 months. It can be painful and a child who is undergoing it shouldn’t be shielded from reality. Be honest when talking about chemotherapy with a child. It may seem difficult, but honesty is always better than lying.

Trust that your child is mature enough to understand.

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