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Childhood cancer: Helping kids cope

A cancer diagnosis hits anyone hard, but when a child is involved, the news often sends shock waves.

Even as they are making quick treatment decisions, parents must cope with denial, anger and fear. They wonder “Why my child?” or “What could I have done to prevent this?”

At the same time, they must be careful not to let their child’s fears escalate and, always, to keep hope alive. There is, after all, good reason to be optimistic. Advances in cancer research over the past 30 years have greatly improved the outlook for childhood cancers. In fact, 78 percent of children with cancer will survive five years after diagnosis.

For parents who are helping kids battle cancer, these suggestions may help:

  • Tell your child as much as he or she can understand. Children can sense when something is wrong. Keeping the truth from them or telling them that everything is okay only fuels their fear and imagination. To ease your child’s anxiety, explain cancer in a way that is age appropriate. Very young children can understand terms like “good guy cells,” “bad guy cells” or “troublemakers.” It may be useful to draw pictures, tell stories or act out procedures with dolls.
  • Be honest. At a time when his or her world is turned upside down, your child needs to know that you can be trusted. So don’t tell your child that a procedure won’t hurt when it will. Instead, be clear about what he or she can expect every step of the way.
  • Make sure your child knows that the illness is not a punishment. Sometimes children think they’re sick because they did something wrong.
  • Encourage your child to express his or her feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask your child how he or she is feeling. Tell him or her that it’s okay to feel sad or to cry. Sometimes kids hide their emotions because they don’t want to upset their parents.
  • Ease separation anxiety. Kids younger than 5 are more fearful about being separated from their parents than about the disease itself. So remind them that you love them and that you will be back for them as soon as possible.
  • Allow your child to make appropriate decisions. This will make him or her feel like an active member of the healthcare team and encourage him or her to cooperate with treatment. Older children should be aware of their treatment schedules.
  • As much as possible, maintain structure. Your child should attend school and keep up with his or her schoolwork as much as the illness allows. He or she should follow your house rules and not expect special treatment. Sticking with the usual routine will actually ease your child’s anxiety and help keep resentment from building in siblings.
  • Have your child meet other kids with cancer. Baldness and amputation are just some of the ways cancer treatment may affect appearance. Having your child talk with other children in similar circumstances can calm his or her fears.

Help for parents

For information about how to get support, advice or a listening ear, visit the Candelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation Web site at for the location of a Candelighters group near you.