How to Talk to Your Kids About Ways to Prevent Cancer

Paula Rauch, MD, is the director of the Marjorie E. Korff Parenting At a Challenging Time, or PACT, program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She is also a member of the 2022 Cancer.Net Psychosocial Oncology Advisory PanelView Dr. Rauch’s disclosures.

Cancer prevention, like other healthy and safe lifestyle choices, can most easily become a way of life when parents begin teaching these practices to their children early. These healthy practices include cancer-related and non-cancer-related habits, such as healthful eating, sun protection, vaccinations, wearing a seat belt, wearing a bike helmet, brushing your teeth, handwashing, and even practicing how to respond to a home or school fire alarm. It’s helpful to include cancer prevention choices with teaching other healthy behaviors. Young children are accustomed to learning how to do things from caring adults, so the earlier the better when it comes to creating healthy lifestyle patterns.

To help your child understand why preventing cancer is important, it’s helpful to first share with them general education about cancer and how it forms. A parent might explain:

“Our bodies are made up of trillions and trillions of tiny cells. Think of them as building blocks that are too small to see without a microscope. The cells in our body have the amazing ability to replace themselves on a regular schedule so that they are able to do their many different jobs. There are lung cells and heart cells and skin cells, to name just a few, and each has its own job to do.

Cancer cells are mixed-up cells that don’t fit together correctly and cannot do their special jobs. Another problem with cancer cells is that their on/off switch is broken, so instead of being on the regular replacement schedule, they make too many of themselves and get in the way of the healthy cells. Scientists are working all the time to understand the different causes of cancer and the ways to get rid of cancers.

One great way to keep from getting cancer is to make healthy lifestyle choices, which is called ‘prevention.’ When we practice healthy lifestyle and prevention behaviors, we never know about the cancers we never get. But scientists can track how prevention helps keep the risk of cancer lower among big groups of people when people make healthier choices.”

When parents share guidance on preventing cancer, especially with young children, it is helpful to keep it simple and age-appropriate. Start with the general cancer education above, then talk about the specific prevention practices. You can approach sharing prevention information with your children by breaking it down into these 3 simple steps:

  1. Why do we do it? Let children know, “We take preventive measures to protect our cells and keep them healthy.”

  2. How do we do it? These are the measures you can share with your children that can help prevent cancer. For example, explain to them that they can prevent skin cancer by applying sunscreen, wearing sun-protective clothing, or staying in the shade during mid-day sun.

  3. Connect these rules with your love for your child. End the conversation by saying, “I love you, so I want you to be healthy now and for the rest of your lifetime.”

How to talk to your kids about sun safety

There are several ways you can talk to your child about sun safety based on their age:

With a very young child, a parent may simply say, “To go outside and play, we need to put on sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.”

For a child in grade school, a parent might say, “It is important to go outside and get exercise to help your body be strong, and it’s important to protect your skin from getting a sunburn. The rays of the sun can do damage to skin that affects your skin when you are an adult, even when you don’t get a sore sunburn. Sun safety now will help your skin be healthy when you are my age and even grandma and grandpa’s age.”

For a teenager, you can talk about the different types of light rays that are harmful to the skin. You will also need to follow the same rules that you set for your child yourself. Teens, in particular, will not respond well to adults who tell them to do one thing but do something different themselves!

How to talk to your kids about getting the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine

The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for everyone between the ages of 9 and 45. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends HPV vaccination for everyone through the age of 26 if they are not already vaccinated.

As your child approaches the age to receive the HPV vaccine, you can share with them: “We are learning more and more about what causes different cancers and what we can do to prevent cancer from ever happening. Some cancers can be caused by special viruses that damage cells and many, many years later can turn into cancer. The HPV vaccine protects against one of these viruses that can damage cells and could cause a cancer later. Vaccines teach your immune system how to recognize and fight off harmful viruses.”

How to talk to your kids about not smoking

It is especially important to talk to your kids about avoiding smoking as they approach their teenage years. You can explain to them the importance of this by saying, “Smoking can damage lung cells because you are inhaling different chemicals over and over and over again that irritate the cells inside your airways. Eventually, some of those cells can get scarred and mixed up, which can lead to a cancer in your lung cells. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but too many people do. Another problem with smoking is that once you start smoking, it is really hard to quit—much harder than most people realize. The best plan is to never start smoking. I want you to have healthy lungs now and in the future. I don’t want you to smoke, and I love you.”

How to talk to your kids about living a healthy lifestyle

Following a healthy lifestyle means taking measures to take care of our bodies, including getting regular physical activity, eating nutritious foods, limiting alcohol intake, and maintaining a healthy weight. You can share with your child that these are all ways they can help protect themselves against cancer by saying, “While you are young, it is our job as parents to guide you in making healthy and safe choices. When you are a grown-up, you will make your own choices, and we hope that those choices will still be ones that increase your safety and the health of your body so you can have a long life. Good health starts when you are a child, and a healthy body allows you to have lots of choices in how you want to spend your time and energy. I am excited to see all the choices you will make and the places you will go.”

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