Childhood Cancer

Managing Emotions

A pediatric cancer diagnosis affects the whole family. Once you have determined the course of treatment, turn your attention to these important areas.

Communicating with your child. How to talk with your child about their cancer diagnosis and treatment depends on their age. Infants and toddlers will not understand much. Elementary school-aged children can best learn with simple explanations and sometimes the use of dolls provided by social workers who may tell them, “This doll also has cancer and is getting the same treatments, injections, etc.” Teenagers can be the most challenging to communicate with, not because they don’t understand but because they understand too much. They may feel angry and project that anger onto you when they miss out on activities, look and feel ill, and are not able to do the things their classmates do. They also may be worried about dying. Honesty is important. Don’t create an untrusting situation at this critical time. Explain the diagnosis and help your child understand what it means to them, such as how treatment may make them feel, why they may not be able to attend school or see friends for a while, and the potential for hair loss. Hair loss typically accompanies chemotherapy, which is a common treatment for childhood cancer. It can be a traumatic experience. Plan ahead for how to cope with it. Explore ball caps, hats, scarves and wigs if hair loss is likely. Your child’s nurse navigator or the child-life specialist on staff can help ensure you have an age-appropriate discussion about what to expect. They also can provide online and community resources, including support groups for teens dealing with cancer.

Sibling needs. Maintaining normalcy as best you can for your entire family, including your child who has cancer, is key. It reduces stress and anxiety. Keep your kids on the same school and activity schedule. Enlist the help of other parents and friends for carpooling. Have regular meal times. Give each of your children time with you to talk about their daily lives and about their fears related to their sibling’s illness. They are likely feeling the same anxiety as you. Recognize that they may not want to burden you with their feelings. In that case, set up a time for them to talk with a social worker or child-life specialist.

Your child’s network. Let your child’s teachers know about your situation and determine whether school work can be done remotely. When your child can return to school, discuss accommodations to make the transition smooth. Socialization can do a lot for morale. If in-person visits aren’t possible, encourage your child and their friends to keep up with phone calls, video games and social media.

Support resources. Advocacy groups and local and national organizations can recommend a variety of activities designed for everyone in the family, including peer-to-peer counseling; camps for kids with cancer and for their siblings; and spiritual guidance.

Your well-being. Find an outlet for your emotions. Share your feelings with a close friend, enlist the aid of a therapist, or connect with a support group for parents of a child with cancer. Relax, whether it is reading a book, watching a movie or just having some alone time. Take care of yourself physically, too. Exercise regularly, eat right and keep up with your medical appointments and regular screenings. You will not be able to care for your child if your health suffers.