Hearing that your child has cancer is terrifying for any parent. Today, most childhood cancer patients can expect to have full and productive lives. Many childhood cancer survivors return to school, attend college, enter the workforce, marry and become parents. Nevertheless, being vigilant about follow-up care, being aware of long-term and late effects of treatment, helping your child return to school and even dealing with your emotions are all things you’ll need to manage.
Managing Your Emotions
You are likely to experience a wide range of emotions from the time your child is diagnosed with cancer, throughout treatment and beyond. These emotions may include shock, denial, fear, anger, guilt and sadness. You may feel that life for your child and family will never be the same. Allow yourself to feel sad. Understand that you are not to blame for your child’s diagnosis. Over time, you’ll find ways to adapt and gradually develop a new sense of normalcy for you and your family.
All of these feelings are to be expected, but if you feel consumed by feelings or are unable to function, seek professional help. Psychologists, social workers and spiritual advisers may also help you come to terms with your child’s diagnosis. It’s important to work through your feelings so you can help your child to cope and you can continue to manage other aspects of family life and work.
For coping tips for parents, click here.
Talking to Your Child About His or Her Diagnosis
Regardless of age, children are usually aware when their health causes their parents concern. Your child may experience a variety of emotions, such as anger, guilt, fear, anxiety and sadness, all in quick succession.
Some parents wish to shield their child from information about the illness and its treatment. Keep in mind that your child will use his or her imagination to fill in what he or she perceives as gaps of information. Sharing information about the illness and treatment helps your child build trust in both you and the members of the treatment team so that he or she feels comfortable talking about fears and concerns. Encourage your child to talk about his or her concerns and ask questions.
Introduce your child to treatment team members who provide psychosocial support, such as a psychologist, nurse, social worker and child-life specialist. In addition to helping you explain the illness and its treatment to your child, they can help your child better understand his or her disease through play or other activities.
For children of any age, if you notice troubling changes in mood or behavior, reach out to the healthcare team for help.
For more on what to tell your child, click here.
Read the PDF, When Your Child Has Cancer, for guidelines on age-appropriate discussions.
Ways to Help Your Child Cope
It will help your child cope with his or her diagnosis if you:
- Provide structure to increase your child’s sense of control. Children crave structure in their environment. Make things as consistent as possible. For example, plan a regular routine that you will follow during your time together in the hospital or clinic.
- Acknowledge and praise your child when he or she is doing difficult things. Intermittent praise is the best way to reinforce the desirable behaviors that you want to see in your child.
- Use the same consequences for bad or inappropriate behavior as you did before your child was diagnosed with cancer. Consistency will maintain structure and normalcy.
- Show that you respect your child’s anger, worry, sadness or fear. Give your child appropriate outlets for expressing these feelings, such as drawing or keeping a journal.
- Keep your child busy with activities during treatment to take his or her mind off difficult and unpleasant experiences.
- Help your child to stay connected with friends from home and school with phone calls, emails, or visits, if possible.
- Ask for professional assistance for your child if he or she is having an especially difficult time adjusting to the cancer diagnosis and its treatment.
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, everyone in his or her family is affected by the experience, including the child’s brothers and sisters. For tips on helping children cope with a sibling’s diagnosis, click here.
Most children who have cancer will attend school at least some of the time, both during and after their treatment. You’ll need to ensure that your child’s education is started, maintained or changed as needed. Let your child’s school teachers, nurses and guidance counselors know what’s happening. School is a place for learning and fun so children benefit from returning to their classrooms as soon as medically possible. Yet, returning to school after cancer treatment can be a tough adjustment for young survivors.
To learn more about returning to school and programs that can make the transition easier for you and your child, click here.
Long-Term and Late Effects of Childhood Cancer
Treatment for childhood blood cancer involves risks for long-term and late effects that may affect
- Learning (cognitive effects)
- Physical development
- Fertility (ability to have biological children)
- Psychological development
- Risk of a secondary cancer.
Specific effects depend upon the child’s age, gender, type of treatment and additional factors. The range and severity of potential long-term and late effects vary. Some children will have no significant effects or very mild effects, others may have serious complications.
However, early intervention and healthy lifestyle practices (not smoking, good nutrition, exercise, regular screenings and follow-up care) can help lessen the occurrence and/or severity of any late effects.
Ask your child’s treatment team the following questions:
- What signs or symptoms indicate a long-term or late effect?
- Whom should I contact if my child develops any of these symptoms?
- What can we do to decrease the likelihood or severity of long-term or late effects?
- Can you provide printed lists of possible effects and signs or symptoms? What are the possible long-term and late effects my child may experience?
- Can you provide a list of routine screening tests and when they should start (for example, a mammogram)?
For more on the long-term and late effects of treatment for childhood cancer survivors, click here.
Read the PDF, When Your Child Has Cancer, for more information.
- Childhood Blood Cancer
- Be Your Child’s Advocate
- Follow-Up Care for Childhood Cancer Survivors
- Download or order The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s free booklets:
- Learning & Living with Cancer
- Long Term and Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Leukemia or Lymphoma Facts