Children Diagnosed With Cancer: Understanding the Health Care System

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Talking with the health care team

Good communication among patients, families, and health care team members is very important. The intensity, complexity, and length of treatment and follow-up care require that everyone involved have confidence and trust in one another and be able to work well together.

Most of the time, children with cancer and their families develop a bond with the doctors, nurses, and other team members. But sometimes, personalities and styles may clash, and all may not go smoothly. Fortunately, patients and parents usually find that there are certain team members with whom they can form helpful relationships and have good communication.

Trust and confidence

Confidence comes with knowing that all team members are well trained and experienced in treating cancer in young people, and that the facility meets the highest standards. Information about the education and credentials of all team members should be readily available. The institution’s status and reputation can be researched quickly. But trust in individuals will only come with time and the experience of sharing decisions and going through diagnosis and treatment.

Two-way communication

Parents are the experts when it comes to their children. It’s important for them to have that expertise recognized, just as it’s important for professionals to have their knowledge and skills recognized. Parents can help team members learn how best to deal with their children. On the other hand, health professionals who have worked with many children who have cancer can often give parents new ideas to try when the old ones don’t work. Good communication comes out of mutual respect for what each person brings to the joint effort to give the child with cancer the best possible care.

Consent for the child’s treatment

When a child or teen is being treated for cancer, the parent or guardian is asked to give consent for tests and treatments the doctor thinks are needed. The parents or guardians are in charge of looking out for the child’s best interests. This is another reason it’s important to understand what’s happening and be sure that the team knows your concerns.

Communication should be clear, direct, and honest. Team members need to be sure that they give complete information, and that they use words that patients and families can understand. In the same way, the patient and family members need to state their thoughts, opinions, and feelings clearly and ask their questions directly. They also need to feel certain that they are being heard. Because of the emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis, it’s often necessary to repeat things and ask questions more than once. This is normal, and it’s better to do this than have misunderstandings.

Tips for good communication with the health care team

  • Become a partner and actively take part in your child’s care.
  • Develop and expect an attitude of mutual respect and cooperation.
  • Give accurate information about your child’s and the family’s health history.
  • Keep a list of questions for doctors or other team members.
  • Take notes when having important talks with your child’s cancer team members.
  • Ask for explanations of medical or technical terms you don’t understand.
  • Let team members know about your doubts or concerns about information given or about requests made of your child.
  • Have reasonable expectations about how much time team members can spend with each patient and family. Let them know when you need more time.
  • Let team members know what the family and patient prefer when there’s more than one way to give care.
  • Develop positive relationships with team members.
  • Help children and teens develop trust in team members.
  • Expect patient and family information to be kept private.
  • Make sure parents have direct and equal access to doctors and other team members.
  • Expect to have communication and other problems sometimes because of the many experts involved in caring for patients.
  • Address confusion, frustrations, or disagreements directly with the team member involved.
  • Get help from other team members only if your first efforts to resolve conflicts directly do not work.

Last Medical Review: 07/02/2012
Last Revised: 07/02/2012