Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Dealing With Diagnosis

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Ways to improve coping

Most parents worry about their ability to handle the emotions that come with their child’s cancer. But most parents have great strengths when it comes to protecting and caring for their children. These strengths come through even during personal pain.

Get help from the cancer team.

Develop trust in and get help from your team of experts. Social workers, nurses, doctors, and others who are part of the health care team can help parents understand the range of emotions that are normal. Experts can also help you learn new skills, such as relaxation and stress management. Sometimes chaplains or child life specialists work with families of children with cancer. Help is available for you and your entire family, but you might have to ask for it.

Family members need to take time to care for themselves.

Parents and other adults who care for the child can often handle their feelings better if they take care of their own needs. It’s easy to neglect things like eating, sleeping, exercising, and taking breaks from caring for the child. But these things are especially important to help parents be able to care for the child. It also reassures the child that some routines are being kept and that the adults are OK, despite the stress of the child’s illness.

When the parents and other important adults take care of themselves, it reminds the child that self-care routines are still important. Parents and other caregivers may need to be reminded to see their family doctors for their own personal health problems and concerns.

Express feelings in ways that don’t frighten the child.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other loved ones often have feelings much like those of parents and may struggle to manage many of the same emotions. It usually helps them when they get accurate information and are called on to give practical help. Team members can also help them discuss and handle their feelings.

Sometimes, parents try to shield certain family members from the news of the diagnosis because of concern about its emotional impact. The health care team can help parents who must share bad news while being sensitive to the special issues of a family member. In general, secrets in a family tend to shut down communication rather than open it up. This tends to keep the family from working together as well as it could, at a time when it needs to pull together to cope.

Feelings often just appear whether we like it or not. But how we choose to express them is generally under our control. Reactions to a major life crisis, such as the diagnosis of cancer in a child or teen, are upsetting and painful, but natural. Most patients and family members express their feelings and manage them the best they can. Parents can help their child by showing that they are not ashamed or afraid to show what they feel. They can also help their children by controlling when and how they express their emotions and focusing on moving forward.

Get help from other sources.

Families that are flexible and can call on lots of support from their extended family, place of worship, workplace, or community, tend to cope better. Open and clear communication is helpful. So is an ability to reorganize and balance the demands of the child’s illness with the rest of the family’s needs.

Families that might need extra help are those with problems in more than one area, such as family relationships, the marriage, and finances. Families with only one parent or caregiving adult may also have trouble balancing demands of the child’s illness with the needs of other family members. If this is your situation, talk with your cancer team’s social worker as soon as you can. The cancer team may be able to refer you to extra sources of help in your community or at the cancer center.

Last Medical Review: 06/29/2012
Last Revised: 06/29/2012