How To Explain Cancer To A Child With The Help Of Nurse Ted

With it being estimated that one in two of us may suffer some form of cancer during our lifetime, how difficult must it be to have to explain cancer to a child?  It is, hopefully, something I will never have to do for Caitlin and Ieuan and yet it would be naive to blindly assume that it would never happen. My dad is a prostate cancer survivor whilst my maternal grandmother, Phyllis, died at just 60 from bowel cancer in 1976 when I was 12.

I don’t remember much about that time.  In those days cancer was talked about in hushed tones and, in our family, not really discussed.  I do remember my mother travelling up and down from Cardiff to Plymouth several times and being allowed to visit my grandmother once more in the downstairs drawing room where a bed had been made for her. Despite being close to the end, she had still done her hair and applied her make-up (Ponds Cold Cream, Bourjois Blusher and pink lipstick). My grandmother would not have dreamt of receiving visitors looking less than groomed.

explain cancer to a child with the help of Nurse Ted

I still think of her often and wish more could have been done for her but the fear I felt, the confusion, the not knowing and not understanding the reactions of the adults around me has never left me.

I have discovered a beautifully written book which helps parents and carers to explain cancer to a child in a way that takes the confusion and fear out of the situation for them.  A book, in fact, which would have helped if not me, at 12, then certainly my younger sister Sarah who was 9 at the time.

A guide that helps explain cancer to a child

Nurse Ted  – A Children’s Guide to Cancer by Ffion Jones and Kerry Foster-Mitchell tells the story of Ben, whose mum receives a cancer diagnosis and goes to the hospital for treatment.  The tale follows the family through Ben’s mum’s treatment and ends with her recovering at home after her treatment.

Nurse Ted explains to Ben what is happening, what cancer is and how it is treated.  This is done in a gentle, yet practical way.  For example:- “I told Ben that every cancer is different.  Cancer is an umbrella for more than 100 different illnesses where cells grow where they shouldn’t”.

explain cancer to a child - Ben's mum had become unwell

There is no sugar coating, however, and the story is realistic without being alarming.  We see Ben’s mum wearing a scarf over her head after chemotherapy-related hair loss.

And, at the end of the story, there is no automatic happy ending, rather we are shown a family who have grown together and who are determined to face the future no matter what it may bring.

At the back of the book, there is a glossary of terms aimed at children such as “Radiotherapy – a special cancer treatment using x-rays.  The x-rays are directed at cancer cells to try to stop them growing”.

And there is a list of the side effects of both radiotherapy and chemotherapy, as well as space for the child to note down their thoughts and feelings.

Lastly, there is a cut-out parent/carer guide to help you to tell your children and suggestions about how to support them through their parent’s treatment.

Nurse Ted – A Children’s Guide to Cancer is a really useful resource which may make a very difficult situation a little easier for the family.  Kerry Foster-Mitchell is a neuro-oncology clinical nurse specialist at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, whilst Ffion Jones is the author and illustrator of seven children’s picture books.

You can find the book at RRP £7.99 where there is also a guide on how to explain brain tumours to children.


  1. Iris Tilley
    24 March, 2018 / 9:57 am

    We struggled trying to explain to my then 8 yr old son that his father had cancer I was dreading it The word Cancer is scary for us adults so explaining is really hard.

    • linda
      24 March, 2018 / 7:25 pm

      I’m sorry to hear that Iris. It is truly the scariest disease.

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