How to Tell a 5 Year Old That Dad Has Cancer

Updated on July 17, 2008
M.S. asks from Zephyrhills, FL
10 answers

I am hoping that somebody out there will know how to handle this situation. We just recived word that my brother-n-law has been diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, it starts at the base of his esophagus and has reached the top of his stomach. How and when should they tell my 5 year old niece the full extent of what is happening? I wish they did not have to tell her but she will figure something out as they are meeting with the oncologist this Friday as he has decided to do chemo and radiation and will be getting very ill pretty quick. I know they have told her that daddy is sick and will need to take some medicine, but how and when should they tell her the rest? I would also ask that you keep them close in thought and prayers as we know GOD can and does work miracles.
Also does anyone know of ways for him to get nutrition and keep his strenght up as he has already lost 30 pounds due to his having problems eating and once he starts treatment will be unable to eat very little if anything at all?
I will be traveling to Tennessee to stay with them for a little while, any suggestions on how to be helpful without stepping on their toes or offending them? I know they must deal with this in their own way and time but on the other hand would like to be supportive and helpful any and all suggestions will be welcomed,
Thanks M.

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So What Happened?

I have been waiting to post hoping that I would have some good news to share, unfortunatly this is not the case. Mark underwent Major surgery on Monday and had his esophogus and part of his stomach removed and will be in ICU until at least tomorrow. From what we understand during surgery they discovered that his lymph nodes were swollen and were told by the doctors they were unable to get all of it. As I understand it they were able to create a new esophogus but he is currently on a feeding tube and IV's. Thankfully in the midst of all of this my niece has started kindergarden so at least she has school to occupy her time. Unfortunatly due to her dad being in ICU she is unable to visit, but with all of the wires and tubes he has it is proably for the best. We are so frustrated with the insurance company as we understand from my sister they would not authorize a pet scan which will show if the cancer has spread but authorized surgery, please explain to me the reasoning behind this kind of thinking.
My niece is their little miracle as she was born three months early and weighed less than a pound and was less than 12 inches long, this goes to show that GOD can and does perform miracles. It is amazing that she wasn't expected to make it and on the 14th she will be celebrating her 6th birthday, miracles do exists.
I am not sure where they go from here and what will happen next as they are still waiting on the rusults of what they biopsied during surgery. At this time I am unable to go to TN due to obligations that I have here. Please remember them in your thoughts and prayers and I do believe that GOD will be there to help them through. Mark was determined when he came home from each chemo session to go to work that day and with the exception of the first treatmemt he did just that, he has the determination to fight and this is just what he needs. As his hair started falling out due to the chemo he made the decison to shave his head and turned it into a game with my niece. They drove down last weekend and picked up my mom so she could help take care of my niece. I have talked with my sister concerning how important it is for her to take care of herself and Alyssa during this time, if not she will make herself sick. Unfortunatly due to the fact that I was sick I was unable to see them while they were here. Please keep them close in thought and prayer and I will do the same for you.

M. S.

More Answers



answers from Roanoke on

M., I'm so sorry for what your family is going through. My grandma got really sik with cancer when I was a teenager. I don't have a clue about the 5 year old, but I can give you a little advice about helping out the family. My grandma always got so angry because everybody treated her differently after she got sick. Of course things are different and you never know quite what to say, but as much as you can, try to talk to the person the same as you normally would. I can also tell you that everyone in the household is going to be exhausted from worrying and trying to care for the one who is sick. Sometimes it just takes an enormous amount of energy to do things like cook or wash dishes or do laundry. That's if his wife isn't one of those people who HAS to keep busy to cope. Sorry that I couldn't offer you more advice, but I guarantee you that a lot of the other moms on here are going to be able to offer suggestions too. My thoughts and prayers will be with you and your family. Good luck.

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answers from Tampa on

My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 7 years old, and my brothers were 5 and 4 years old. He passed away after battling cancer for 11 months. I agree with those that said that the truth is best. Trust is immensely important, and children are stronger and wiser than people give them credit for. I think that your niece should be told that her daddy is very sick, and that the medicine he will be taking is to help him try to get better, but that sometimes that medicine makes you look sicker before you get better. If/when the death question comes up, since it sounds like you are people of faith, you can tell her that he may die and go to heaven because sometimes God needs angels up in heaven to help watch over all those below. As an angel he is now free to always be with you, no matter where you are. It has been 26 years since my father passed away, and I still find those words to be extremely comforting, and have also found that they have helped me deal with death better than many people.

I recently found some notes my mom had kept that my friends and I had written to each other in class shortly after my father passed, and I was shocked by the anger expressed through the notes (I don't really remember feeling angry), but I was reminded by how clearly I understood what had gone on, and how well I had coped (this is what I remember). Grief, with anger and sadness is inevitable, but knowing the truth from the beginning helped me deal with events better. We visited my father often while he was in the hospital and he was at home as much as possible. One thing: my mother took us to the viewing, but gave us the choice of going to the funeral or staying at my aunt's house. We chose to stay and play with our cousins. Now I wish I had gone to the funeral too, because that also helps with closure. I know we are all hoping for the best for your brother-in-law, and that you don't want to have to consider the worst possible scenario, but I wanted to share my story in hopes that it can help you prepare if the situation comes to that. I will pray for you and your family.

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answers from Tampa on

5 years old is too young to have a cancer discussion. if you tell her the truth not only will she not understand but she will be scaredd. She needs to enjoy her father for however long God decides for him to be with us. Tell her he is sick and will take medicine and leave it that way. God is a miracle worker and remember he is in the blessing buisness.

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answers from Tampa on

I feel for you and your family. I lost my Mom last May to this exact same cancer. She was much older, didn't find it til it was advanced stage 3 and I think she would have beat it had she not got the shingles.
She drank carnation instant breakfast 6-8 times a day. We put ice cream in it, banana's all kinds of mushy stuff. It helped alot! It tastes good so that makes it easier than some of the "nutrition" drinks.
Please be sure to keep anyone that is sick or has been exposed to chicken pox away! We had a family member visit from out of town with their child who was in a class with another that had chicken pox. This child had already had it so they weren't worried about the kid but never thought she may expose my Mom to this, and voila about 3 days after they left she came down with shingles, a form of chicken pox. This was what did it, from there she got pnemonia.....

About your neice, tell her the truth but without ALL the details. Let her know Daddy is sick but the Drs are going to be helping him get better. He will be tired and will need her to help him get better too!
My 3 year old daughter was there for all of it and we have questions still. We had to go to the same hospital this year and she thought she would see her there and I had to remind her, that she was in heaven and we can only see her in our dreams and our hearts.
Tell your brother in law to be strong and believe he can win this battle and he will!
Good Luck to all of you,

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answers from Punta Gorda on

My girls were 21 months and 5yrs old when their dad was diagonosed with cancer at a stage 4. We talked with counselor's from Moffit Cancer in Tampa and a cancer support group for children in CA. ( ) They all said to tell your children the truth. Tell them on a level they will understand and keep to the facts. Both places told us, if you lie about what is going on or try to keep this from your child they will learn to not trust you. Trust is very important, especially durning this time. If she asks "Is Daddy going to die", to tell my child that Daddy has the best possible Doctors and that they are doing everything they can to make Daddy better.

There are books out there you can get to talk to your niece about her Dad having cancer. There are work books children can do to express their feelings. was huge in helping with info. They will send a child a care package in the mail. Do not be afraid to let the children see you cry. It's ok.

For us it's exactly 2 years later and the cancer came back 2 more times and three surgeries later he is cancer free for 8 months. Just like the other responses you received, Ensure and milkshakes helped. I will keep your family in my prayers. C.

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answers from Sarasota on

I am suprised that no one mentioned contacting the American Cancer Society.

I did the Relay For Life in Sarasota this past April (my mom was diagnosed with liver cancer June 2007 and I've lost other relatives to cancer).

It sounds like you have received a lot of other good advice and support so I just want to suggest that they or you contact the local ACS office up in Tennessee. If you need the extra support and are back home, try the local offices here too.

1-800-ACS-2345 is the number you can call and they are so very helpful. They have some way to help every person. That's something I learned from doing the Relay this year - it's amazing the support they have available.

I hope and pray for the best for your entire family.

My mom is now back to work and doing really well, thank God.

Something else is that there are a lot of different ways each person deals with it - when I found out about my mom (who was only 48 when she was diagnosed - I was 23 when she finally told me what was going on) I was very angry. I felt like I was too young and she was too young and that, well, to be frank - it wasn't fair. The truth is that it is NEVER fair. My mom was given a 50/50 chance on a brand new, experimental treatment for her specific cancer (Liver Cancer is very different from any other type of cancer, which makes it even harder to treat). All I could think of is that a 50% chance of survival isn't enough. After I was angry, I felt scared, and cheated and like no one else could understand how I felt - how could they? I am her only child and I have 2 small children of my own. So, I guess I'm just saying to be very open to how ever others are dealing with it - and don't forget about you too! I'm sure this is hard on you.

I know this was posted over a month ago, but I saw it and was compelled to write.

Best wishes & thoughtful prayers,


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answers from Lakeland on

She is so young. I would not tell her anymore until at least the final prognosis has been made. You are right miracles do happen, he could beat this and if things go bad then they can tell her that daddy will be going home to God soon and he will want to spend as much time with her as he is able before he has to go. That daddy was too sick and God wanted to bring him home so God could make him well again but that he would have to stay with God to remain well so she won't be able to see him anymore once he leaves.

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answers from Punta Gorda on

I think that you going up there to help is key. Your love and support is obvious. I think that telling a 5 year old that daddy is sick is more than enough. Keeping things as normal as possible for her is going to make things easier. Giving her a routine and trying to kee her away from the treatment will be best. It has been my experience that when people get sick like that they want there children to still see them as strong and independant. If you can take daddy to treatment while mom spends time with daughter, or if you can spend time with daughter while mom takes dad to treatment, I think that will be huge.

Communicatin is the most imporant thing though. Talk to them often. Don't assume that because you cooked dinner today that they will want you to cook the next day. Talk and listen.

I will keep you in my prayers. This is an awful thing to go through. Find out about Hospice. This is a great service to familys, use it.

When he has good days, and he will have good days, ask him what he wants to do and do it. It is important while he is going through treatment that you help him to enjoy the very precious time he has.

Good Luck and God Bless You!

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answers from Tampa on

Cancer is a bit of a buzz word in this day and time. Even at 9, when my son was told that my Dad had cancer, he immediately thought that his death was inevitable. I would stick to age-appropriate facts for as long as possible. Just that he is sick, and eventually that the medicine is making him feel weaker as it is healing his body from the inside out.

My Dad is just finishing up his second battle with neck cancer, so eating has been a challenge for him as well. Drinks like Ensure have helped to keep getting the nutrients he needs into him, but he says they aren't the tastiest! During his first rounds of chemo and radiation when he could no longer swallow, they did put a central line directly into his stomach so the food could go right through there, bypassing the throat and esophogas which were beyond raw and sore.

Radiation has been an extremely time consuming process for my Dad. 12 weeks, five days a week, he has to travel to the Dr's office for the treatment, and it is beyond tiring and wears him out completely. However, chemo is the one that made him sickest. When planning your trip to stay with your brother, especially if you have limited time to be there, I would plan not to go in the very beginning, as the side effects often get progressively worse and will be much harder on everyone midway through the course of treatments than they are in the beginning.

My thoughts and prayers are with you all, and please feel free to contact me if you have other questions you think i may be able to answer.


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answers from Tampa on

M., I'm sorry to hear of your brother-in-law's diagnosis. You might be interested in reading Randy Pausch's blog. In case you don't know of him, he's the guy whose been featured a lot in the media (Parade Magazine, Oprah, etc.) because of his battle with pancreatic cancer. He had a popular video on YouTube and now a book about his "last lecture." He initially did not tell his three young kids, but maybe they know now. I think people on this board have offered some great advice.

Here's the blog:

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