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When children and teens are diagnosed with cancer, their whole world changes overnight. Instead of going to school, being with friends, and focusing on the tasks of growing up, they may have to suddenly cope with hospital stays, blood draws, tests, taking medicine, and having surgery or other treatments.
The first few weeks can be frightening and stressful for everyone in the family. Children and teenagers often respond to news of a cancer diagnosis with a range of emotions that reflect those of their parents. The child’s age, stage of development, and personality also affect how they react.
Parents and trusted caregivers know their child in ways that the cancer team does not. The cancer care team has expertise treating cancer in children but you know your child. Your knowledge makes you an important part of the treatment team that will work together to help your child through the first few weeks after diagnosis. This section covers ways to give age-appropriate information about cancer and the reactions children and teens may have, ideas to help create routines and stay connected with life outside of cancer, as well as signs that more help is needed.
It may feel easier to try protect children and teens from cancer by not talking to them about their diagnosis and treatment. Most children and teens figure out something important is happening when they do not feel well, are having tests, and they see adults having quiet conversations with health care professionals. Most children and teens will be less worried and afraid if they are given honest and age-appropriate information about their cancer from the beginning. Having information also helps them cope and builds trust in their caregivers.
Children understand what is happening in different ways, depending on their age and other developmental factors. Talk with the cancer care team about resources to help you talk with your child about their diagnosis. Some families prefer to have adults receive the information first and then share it with the child. Other families find that it works best if everyone hears information from the cancer care team together. You can ask the cancer care team to talk to your child with you present or you may choose to be the one to share the information with your child and a few trusted friends or family members. Here are some general principles for talking with children about their cancer based on their age group.
Children and teens react in many different ways to having cancer and starting treatment. There are some general things you may see in different ages that are all part of the normal process of adjusting to a serious illness. It is normal to experience stress after diagnosis but even normal reactions can be hard to manage without some help and advice from people who specialize in helping children with cancer adjust. Talk to the cancer care team about working with a psychologist or social worker. These specialists are often present in pediatric cancer centers and will meet with you and your family and help with any coping problems.
For more information about helping children cope after the first few weeks of treatment, including information about returning to school, see When Your Child is Going Through Cancer Treatment.
Children and teens will cope better if they see their loved ones managing stress and coping well. For more information about managing your own stress, see If Your Child is Diagnosed With Cancer. There are some important things you can do to help your child and teen adjust in the first few weeks. Here are some general strategies to help them adjust during the first few weeks after diagnosis and beyond:
After the first few weeks, many families find managing cancer starts to get a little easier. The worries and challenges cancer brings may not go away, but families often have learned more about what to expect and may feel that day-to-day life is more predictable. For some children and teens it can take a little longer.
Over time, with support most children with cancer are able to cope, but there are times when it might get to be too much. If a child seems to be having a lot of trouble, even after the first few weeks of treatment, they might benefit from some extra help adjusting. Extra help is needed if a child:
These are signs that should be discussed with the child’s doctor right away. You can talk with a psychologist or social worker at the cancer center who can evaluate the child and make sure that they get the kind of help they need. Rarely, a child may need to see a psychiatrist for medicine or counseling.
For more about survival statistics for your child's cancer type, see the Cancer A-Z section of this site.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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National Cancer Institute. Parents who have a child with cancer. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/caregiver-support/parents#4 on September 10th, 2017
Last Revised: October 12, 2017