Understanding Your Child’s Reaction to His or Her Cancer Diagnosis

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Children react to their cancer diagnosis in an unlimited number of ways. But some things commonly occur among people of the same age group, as part of normal adjustment to having cancer. Remember that it is normal for your child to feel stress after their diagnosis. Difficult emotions are also normally expected, particularly when they do not have help and advice from specialists like psychologists or social workers. If you need help from a psychologist or social worker after your child’s cancer diagnosis, the cancer treatment team provides recommendations, referrals and support.

What to Expect from Infants and Very Young Children with Cancer

If your infant or very young child experiences a cancer diagnosis, you can expect many things as part of “normal” behavior, including:

  • Fearfulness upon separation from parents
  • Fear of painful medical procedures
  • Withdrawal from other people
  • Clinging to parents
  • Slowed progression into walking, talking or self-feeding
  • Greater comfort from small cancer care teams, to avoid too many strangers being around them

What to Expect from Toddlers and Preschool Children with Cancer

Toddlers and preschoolers also experience a range of emotions and behaviors after cancer diagnosis, including:

  • Yelling, screaming, hitting, biting or throwing tantrums
  • Regression to infantile behaviors, such as thumb-sucking and bedwetting
  • Fear of painful medical procedures
  • Benefit from consistent routines for medical treatments and procedures
  • Enjoyment of gaining a sticker or small reward for each achieved goal or completed treatment activity
  • Ongoing questioning about their diagnosis, treatment, expectations and wellness

What to Expect from School-Age Children with Cancer

School-age children react to their cancer diagnosis and treatment in a variety of ways, including:

  • Being upset by school disruption
  • Missing friends and classmates
  • Expressing anger and sadness over loss of their “healthy” life
  • Worry they caused their own cancer or it is contagious
  • Needing emotional and social support from those closest to them

What to Expect from Teens with Cancer

Teens suffer from their cancer diagnosis and treatment in unique ways, including:

  • Upset at school and activity disruption
  • Upset or anger over changes in their appearance
  • Feeling a loss of independence
  • Expressing an intense range of emotions
  • Dwelling on the meaning of their life and who they are with cancer
  • Risky behaviors potentially causing problems
  • Rebellious actions in regard to treatment, parents and doctors

Knowing When Your Child Needs Help Dealing with Their Diagnosis

Life usually gets easier several weeks after learning about your child’s cancer. You still have the same stress in your household about the diagnosis and treatment, but you learn how to deal with these major life changes. In time, your day feels almost “routine” again. But for your child or teen, it can take longer to establish that new normal way of life.

Most kids with cancer begin to cope well over time. But at some points after diagnosis, your child may need a little extra help. This is when they benefit from the help of a social worker, psychologist or other member of your treatment team.

Your child possibly needs extra help if they:

  • Experience sadness that overwhelms them
  • May suffer depression
  • Cannot gain comfort or peace of mind
  • Admit feeling suicidal, thinking about suicide or fear hurting others
  • Fell unable to get past irritability
  • Become easily angered
  • Refuse to follow treatment guidelines or take medications
  • Refuse to attend appointments at the hospital or clinic
  • Withdraw or isolate
  • Cry for long periods or throughout daily life
  • Suffer sleeplessness or nightmares

Never hesitate to talk frankly and openly with your child’s doctor if you have concerns about how your young person is dealing with their cancer diagnosis and treatment.