The word cancer is scary enough for an adult, so imagine its impact on a child? Sadly, the American Cancer Society estimates just over 11,000 children under the age of 15 will be diagnosed with cancer in 2019. So what happens if your child finds themselves a part of the statistic? How do you support a child with cancer? The first step is delivering the news.
“We think it’s important for parents to be honest,” Laurie Sargent, senior child life specialist at Miami Cancer Institute tells Parentology. Sargent says as long as parents give permission, she and her team name the diagnosis and use the proper terminology associated with it. If parents don’t want their child to know, that wish is also respected.
Sargent says a family conference with a medical team and whoever the family chooses to invite is typically scheduled. During this time, diagnosis and treatment are discussed.
“We want them to get the information from us to get the right information,” says Sargent.
She explains that there are several teaching tools, like literature and even apps that can help parents explain the cancer diagnosis to their child and help them cope. The routes parents and medical professionals can take depends on what kids know, their age, how well they pay attention, and how much parents want their children to know.
How Can I Expect My Child to React?
All kids are different in the ways they react to their cancer diagnosis. But, some common trends are seen depending on the child’s age.
According to the American Cancer Society, very young children may be extra clingy to a parent because they’re scared while toddlers may bite and throw tantrums. School-age children and teens may get upset at the disruptions that cancer is causing in their daily lives. Some even rebel and choose risky behavior.
Dealing with your child’s reaction to their diagnosis can be difficult when you’re trying to deal with your own emotions at the same time. The American Cancer Society advises parents to ask for help from child life specialists, social workers, and psychologists. It can also be helpful to keep older children connected to their friends and to let them return to school and participate in as many activities as they’re able. For younger children, playtime and fun activities can provide distractions to painful procedures and hospital stays.
Dealing with the Tough Questions
Once a child learns they have cancer, they’re bound to have many questions.
“The most common things they ask are, is it going to hurt and do I have to be in the hospital,” says Sargent. Many times when they start chemo, it’s done in the hospital so that doctors can watch for any reactions.
Kids also tend to ask when they can go home. Sargent tells Parentology that kids need to understand that once they go home from the hospital, they’ll still have to come back for blood work and other tests. Just because they’re going home, doesn’t mean it’s over.
Older children may ask if they’re going to lose their hair. Sargent says it’s important to talk about those side effects early because their hair will usually fall out within the first few weeks of treatment. They need to understand that it’s perfectly normal and shouldn’t be surprised.
One of the toughest questions many kids may ask is, am I going to die? The American Cancer Society shares some examples of how you can respond. These include:
“Most children with cancer do very well because a lot of people worked hard to find the best ways to help cure cancer.”
“Sometimes children do die from cancer. We are not expecting that to happen to you because the doctors have said they have good treatments for the kind of cancer you have. If for any reason that changes, I promise to be honest about what is happening.”
You can also ask your child’s doctor how to approach the subject if you’re still unsure. It’s also helpful for kids to see and talk to other kids who have gone through treatment.
“We encourage kids who have gone through treatment to talk to other families and let them understand that there is life after what they’re going through,” says Sargent. “We want to encourage them that there is survival.”
There is certainly proof of survival. Sargent says she’s seen former patients become volunteers, while some even go on to pursue a career in the medical field.