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Helping Your Child Adjust to His or Her Cancer Diagnosis

Jan 06, 2018

When young people undergo a cancer diagnosis, they feel a total loss of control over their world. Most have to cope with hospital stays, tests, exams, medications, surgery or other treatments.

When young people undergo a cancer diagnosis, they feel a total loss of control over their world. Most have to cope with hospital stays, tests, exams, medications, surgery or other treatments. They miss going to school, spending time with friends and focusing on growing up.

Everyone in your family feels stress of the diagnosis in the first few weeks. Children tend to mirror their parents’ emotions. Their reactions also depend on their age, personality and stage of development.

Parents know their children better than anyone, even better than their treatment team ever will. This knowledge makes you a critical part of your child’s cancer treatment team. You need to work with the treatment team to help your child get through the first weeks after cancer diagnosis.

Telling Your Child about His or Her Cancer

You may try to withhold information about your child’s cancer from them, in an effort to protect them from the information. But most young people know when something is not right in their family, particularly when their own health circumstances change. Quiet conversations among adults stress children left out of the awareness.

Instead of keeping secrets, provide your child with age-appropriate information. Keep them updated about their own cancer. Information is power, helps them build trust in their caregivers and reduces anxiety they feel after diagnosis.

Talking to Your Child about Cancer in Age-Appropriate Ways

Each growth stage of childhood has its own level of ability to deal with health-related information. Some guidelines for talking to your child about cancer include:

Infants to 2 Years of Age

  • Most secure when their home routines stay the same
  • Gain comfort from cuddling by parents, caregivers and others with whom they have close relationships
  • Fearful of strangers, emotional upon seeing treatment providers, usually unable to talk directly with their treatment team

2 to 5 Years of Age

  • Want to know the name of their cancer
  • Prefer knowing what to expect from treatments and procedures
  • Want to know how their daily life will change
  • Learn through medical play or cancer-related learning activities
  • Need confidence that their words, thoughts or actions did not cause the cancer
  • Need to know cancer is not contagious and they did not “catch it”

6 to 12 Years of Age

  • Want to have conversations about cancer
  • Need to know the name of their cancer and how treatment takes place
  • Need information about how cancer affects schooling and other activities
  • Need confidence that cancer is not a punishment for bad behavior
  • Will have questions and concerns about their changing appearance
  • May fear dying and ask about death
  • Gain confidence from reading books or talking to other children with cancer
  • Need to know you are honest about their cancer and that they can ask any questions and share their feelings openly

12 to 18 Years of Age

  • Usually capable of understanding complex cancer information, as well as details of treatment, procedures, side effects and benefits
  • Should be permitted to communicate directly with and gain information from their cancer treatment team
  • Find it helpful to connect with peers with cancer
  • Usually have concerns about their changing appearance and weight
  • May ask about death and whether they will die
  • Usually still want to do typical teen things, such as hanging out with friends, going to school and going to parties
  • Will need clarity in how cancer affects young people, versus information they gain about adult cancer
  • Need to hear recommendations from the treatment team and have the chance to participate in decision-making
  • Benefit from privately talking with psychologists and social workers about cancer-related feelings