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When Your Child Has Cancer: Dealing With the Diagnosis

image for cancer in children article Hearing the news that your child has cancer can trigger a range of emotions. It is normal to feel shock, anger, fear, anxiety, and sadness. It is also normal to feel guilt—you may wonder why your child has cancer or if you could have changed the outcome somehow by doing (or not doing) something. Remember that, in many cases, it is difficult for even doctors to determine what caused the cancer. And when cancer affects children, the symptoms are not always clear and can mimic other, more common, childhood illnesses. The most important thing is to focus on what you can do right now to help your child.

Learning About the Diagnosis and Treatment Options

During the diagnosis, your child’s doctor may run tests (called staging) to find out the type of cancer, where it is located, whether it has spread, and what body parts are affected. Staging helps determine the treatment plan. During this time, you might want to get a second opinion. If the diagnosis is confirmed, you can get more guidance as to what the next steps should be.

But when you are under extreme stress, it is hard to remember the right questions to ask, not to mention the doctor’s responses. What are some steps that you can take to feel more in control? For starters, keep a notebook handy and jot down questions. Take this notebook to appointments. Or use a recorder to capture your concerns and the doctor’s remarks. Another option is to have a family member or friend accompany you to appointments. They can offer support, ask questions, and be there to listen.

After the diagnosis, you need to gather as much information as you can about the treatment options. Some important questions include:

Using a notebook or recorder or talking to a friend can help you absorb the information and give you a chance to review it when you get home.

Talking to Your Child About the Diagnosis

Cancer treatment involves a whole team—doctors, nurses, radiation therapists, rehab specialists, dieticians, social workers, and other professionals. When it comes time for your child to learn about the diagnosis, use this team for support. Also, ask for guidance from family, friends, church members, and support groups. Choosing the right words depends on your child’s age and level of understanding. You may opt to tell him or have the doctor explain the diagnosis. Either way, being honest and giving love and support are what will help your child cope.

Just like you, your child will have a range of emotions when dealing with the diagnosis. He may feel scared, worried, or angry. He may start acting differently, for example, an outgoing kid becomes quiet and withdrawn. Share this information with the treatment team. It is important for them to know how your child is doing both physically and emotionally. Depending on your child’s age, involve him in the treatment choices. This can help him feel some control over what is happening.

Experiencing Life After the Diagnosis

As hard as it is, life continues after the diagnosis. If your child is feeling well enough, he may still be attending school, playing with friends, and doing household chores. These routines can help your child deal with cancer. When treatment starts, you can adjust his schedule, fitting in time for fun activities when he is feeling less tired.

If you have other children, they also need you to be there for them. Brothers and sisters are also affected by the diagnosis and may be feeling distressed and confused. Meanwhile, they still have school, activities, and friends to keep up with.

And you still have your job and responsibilities at home. How can you manage family life and work when all your energy is focused on your child’s cancer? Remember that you do not have to confront this on your own. Here are some strategies to help you cope.

Ways to Help Yourself

  • Talk to members of the treatment team. These experienced professionals can offer support and recommend resources in your community. For example, joining a support group can help you share experiences with other parents. Or, if you would prefer one-on-one counseling, ask the treatment team if they can recommend a therapist.
  • Learn as much as you can about your child’s cancer. This will help empower you. Just remember that childhood cancer and cancer in adulthood are not the same, so be sure to find the right information. The treatment team can recommend articles and books.
  • Set aside time, even a half hour, just for you. Do something nice for yourself, like getting a massage or taking a relaxing bath. Spending time meditating or praying can help rejuvenate you.
  • It is also important to schedule time for you and your partner to be alone. Plan an enjoyable activity, like going out to dinner, where you can take a break from stress.
  • Family and friends want to be involved. Reach out to them. They may volunteer to do household chores, cook meals, run errands, or babysit your other children; take advantage of their offers. If you are getting a lot of phone calls about your child’s condition, ask someone to be the “go to” person, providing the call-backs and the updates.
  • Is there a new hobby that you are interested in? Since you will be spending time waiting in the hospital, see this as a chance to do something that you find relaxing and enjoyable, like learning to knit or crossword puzzles.
  • You still need to take care of the basics. Get plenty of rest, eat healthy foods, drink a lot of water, and exercise. Just being outside can help relieve stress.

Ways to Help Your Kids

These are steps you can take to help your children cope:

  • For your child with cancer:
    • No matter what, friends are still important to your child. Find ways he can spend time with them. If your child is in the hospital, a quick phone call or an email from a friend can make him smile.
    • If your child has to stop going to school, ask the treatment team if you should get a home tutor. Also, sharing information with your child’s teacher and the school nurse can help them understand the diagnosis and treatment, as well as provide you with more support. Classmates may be curious about your child’s condition. Some hospitals have back-to-school programs that educate the entire class about cancer. This can help your child readjust to life at school. Ask the treatment team if this is available.
  • For all of your children:
    • As much as possible, keep the routines and rules that you had before your child became sick. This will help them feel more secure.
    • Schedule family meetings where everyone is free to talk about their concerns.
    • Explain that whatever they are feeling is normal. Encourage your kids to talk about their feelings.
    • Talk openly about cancer; educate your family. Ask older siblings to play a role in treatment. This will help them feel involved and empowered.
    • Take time to do something fun with your kids. Everyone needs some relief from stress.

Cancer is a life-changing event that affects the entire family, but also has a ripple affect that touches the lives of friends, classmates, and coworkers. As difficult as getting the diagnosis is, know that there are people who care about you and your child and want to help. The treatment team and organizations, like the American Cancer Society, offer support and resources. Family and friends are also there for you. Reaching out to them can help you accept the diagnosis and focus on treatment.


American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute


BC Cancer Agency

Childhood Cancer Foundation


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