Learning your child has cancer is unimaginable, and you may not know what to do first. Start by finding out more about his or her exact diagnosis and explore credible resources to ensure you have access to the best care available. Then, find ways to help yourself and the rest of your family during this difficult time.
About Childhood Cancer
As in adults, pediatric cancer (also called childhood cancer) starts when normal cells change, or mutate, and grow out of control. Certain types of cancers, however, tend to develop more often in children. The reasons why aren’t entirely clear because only a small percentage appear to be related to an inherited genetic condition, and children haven’t had as many years to develop certain nutritional or lifestyle habits or be exposed to certain environmental factors that could affect their health. Regardless of how cancer begins, current research and advances are dramatically improving the way childhood cancer is being treated and cured.
Some diagnoses are more common in children up to 15 years old, while others tend to be more common in adolescents and young adults (AYAs) ages 15-39. Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, leukemia, germ cell tumors, including testicular cancer and ovarian cancer, and thyroid cancer more commonly affect AYAs ages 15-24. Breast cancer and melanoma are more common in AYAs ages 25-39.
Treating Childhood Cancer
Your child’s pediatrician may have made the diagnosis. Although your pediatrician is likely a very good doctor and someone you trust, he or she may not be skilled in treating cancer.
Certain cancer centers and multidisciplinary teams specialize in treating children. Ask your pediatrician for a recommendation to a pediatric oncology center or a referral to a physician known for treating your child’s type of cancer. If the facility or specialist you choose is not nearby and travel is an issue, ask if consulting on your child’s case is an option. Also, ask your child’s nurse navigator about available housing and financial resources for travel.
Treatment typically begins right away because of how aggressive some pediatric cancers can be. However, you may think about getting a second opinion. Different doctors bring different training and perspectives to treatment planning, and getting another opinion from a pediatric oncologist (preferably one who is experienced in treating your child’s type of cancer) will either confirm the original diagnosis and treatment recommendations or offer new information to consider.
Getting a second opinion doesn’t mean you doubt your child’s doctor. It means you want as much expert information as possible.
Common Treatment Options
Treating cancer in children is different than treating it in adults because children are not just small adults. They react to treatments differently than adults, and must be treated appropriately. Because pediatric cancer is relatively rare and hasn’t been studied like adult cancer, clinical trials are often recommended for treating cancer in children.
Clinical trials are research studies that explore whether a treatment is safe and effective, and which strategies work best for certain illnesses or groups of people. Clinical trials may offer your child access to promising new treatments that aren’t available outside of the trial. It may comfort you to know that your child will receive high-quality care and be closely monitored throughout the trial. And by participating, your child will help others who will need treatment in the future.
Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, targeted therapy and stem cell transplantations are standard treatment options. Typically, a combination of these treatments is the best approach, and sometimes the best treatment option depends on the type of cancer.
Take Advantage of Supportive Care
Maintaining a good quality of life for everyone involved is important, and a group of wide-ranging services called supportive care is designed to help you do just that. These valuable resources are available from diagnosis through survivorship. Talk with your treatment team about the supportive care resources available to you and your family, and consider the following options.
For younger patients: Pediatric cancer centers often include age-appropriate playrooms or game rooms to give kids the chance to forget about their illness for a while and just be kids. Camps for pediatric oncology patients are popular. Located around the U.S., camps offer children with cancer and other serious illnesses a true camping experience with trained medical staff onsite.
For AYAs: Whether or not they are treated in a pediatric facility, AYAs need age-appropriate support for their social and emotional needs. Some young adult organizations focus on the unique needs of this age group, offering programs related to issues such as how cancer and its treatment affect relationships, fertility and career.
For siblings: Siblings will feel a variety of emotions, from fear and guilt to anger, and it’s important to address them. Set aside time for each child, and involve siblings in caregiving, as appropriate. It may be challenging, but it may prove beneficial in the long term.
For parents: Continuing to parent as you did before your child was diagnosed with cancer may seem like an extraordinary task, but to your child, you are still the same mom or dad. Although you may feel overwhelmed at times, it helps to stay in a regular routine as much as possible.
When the cancer or its treatments make you veer from “normal” life, switch gears, keeping in mind that flexibility, patience and honest communication with your child – and your partner – are very important. Reach out to your treatment team, clergy, mental health workers or support groups for help. You do not have to shoulder this alone.