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Helping your child understand a cancer diagnosis

Learning that your child has cancer can feel overwhelming and scary. You want to protect your child, not only from the cancer, but also from the fear that comes with having a serious illness.

Explaining what it means to have cancer will not be easy. Here are some things to know when talking with a child about having cancer.

Why Your Child Needs to Know

It can be tempting NOT to tell children about cancer. Of course you want to protect your child from fear. But all children with cancer need to know that they have cancer. Most children will sense something is wrong and may make up their own stories about what it is. Children have a tendency to blame themselves for bad things happening. Being honest tends to lessen a child's stress, guilt, and confusion.

Also, many medical terms, including cancer, will be used by health care providers and others. Children need to understand why they are visiting with doctors and having tests and medicines. It also may help children explain their symptoms and discuss feelings. It will help build trust in your family.

When to Talk About the Cancer

It is up to you when to tell your child about the cancer. Although it is tempting to put it off, you may find it is easiest to tell your child right away. It may become harder as time goes on. And it is best for your child to know and have time to ask questions before starting treatment.

If you are not sure when or how to bring it up, talk with your child's provider. Many providers have been through this before and may have some guidance for what to do. The provider may even help you give your child the news if it is too hard for you to do alone.

Tips for Talking About the Cancer

Here are some things to keep in mind when talking about your child's cancer:

  • Keep your child's age in mind. How much you share with your child depends on your child's age. For example, very young children may only need to know very basic information, while a teenager may want to know more details about treatments and side effects.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions. Try to answer them as honestly and openly as you can. If you do not know the answer, it is OK to say so.
  • Know your child may be afraid to ask some questions. Try to notice if your child has something on his mind but might be afraid to ask. For example, if your child seems upset after seeing other people who have lost their hair, talk about what symptoms he may have from treatment.
  • Keep in mind that your child may have heard things about cancer from other sources, such as TV, the movies, or other kids. It is a good idea to ask what he has heard, so you can make sure he has the right information.
  • Ask for help. Talking about cancer is not easy for anyone. If you need help with certain topics, ask your child's provider or cancer care team.

Dealing with Common Fears

There are some common fears that many children have when they learn about cancer. Your child may be too scared to tell you about these fears, so it is a good idea to bring them up yourself.

  • Your child caused the cancer. It is common for younger children to think that they caused the cancer by doing something bad. It is important to let your child know that nothing she did caused the cancer.
  • Cancer is contagious. Many children think that cancer can spread from person to person. Make sure to let your child know that you cannot "catch" cancer from someone else.
  • Everyone dies from cancer. You can explain that cancer is a serious illness, but millions of people survive cancer with modern treatments. If your child knows someone who has died of cancer, let her know that there are many kinds of cancer and everyone's cancer is different.

You may need to repeat these points many times during your child's treatment.

Ways to Help Your Child Cope

Here are some ways to help your child cope during cancer treatment:

  • Try to stay on a normal schedule. Schedules are comforting to kids. Try to keep as normal a schedule as you can.
  • Help your child stay in touch with classmates and friends. Some ways to do this include email, cards, texting, video games, and phone calls.
  • Keep up with any missed class work. This can help keep your child connected to the school and lessen any anxiety about falling behind.
  • Find ways to add humor to your child's day. Watch a funny TV show or movie together, or buy your child some comic books.
  • Visit with other children who have had cancer. Ask your doctor to put you in touch with other families who have successfully coped with cancer.
  • Let your child know it is OK to feel angry or sad. Help your child talk about these feelings with you or someone else.
  • Make sure your child has some fun every day. For younger kids, this could mean coloring, watching a favorite TV show, or building with blocks. Older kids may prefer to talk to friends on the phone or play video games.

References

American Cancer Society. Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis (Ways to improve coping). Updated October 9, 2014. www.cancer.org/treatment/childrenandcancer/whenyourchildhascancer/childrendiagnosedwithcancerdealingwithdiagnosis/children-diagnosed-with-cancer-dealing-with-diagnosis-ways-to-improve-coping. Accessed October 25, 2016.

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). How a Child Understands Cancer. Updated December 2015. www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/talking-with-family-and-friends/how-child-understands-cancer. Accessed October 25, 2016.

National Cancer Institute. Children with Cancer: A Guide for Parents. Updated September 2015. www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/young-people. Accessed October 25, 2016.

Review Date 8/31/2016

Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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