Helping Kids Cope with Cancer in the Family

From monsters under the bed to the bully in the schoolyard, kids must learn to deal with everyday troubles. But when a loved one has cancer, they may find themselves overcome with fears that just won't go away.

Helping children explore their feelings about the cancer can make a critical difference. One 10-year-old recently explained how he managed in the wake of his mother's diagnosis.

"I talk to my friend," he said, showing a referral card given to him earlier by a Society staff member. Each day after school, the boy called the Society's Cancer Information Center at 1.800.ACS.2345. A cancer specialist listened to his questions, offered simple answers and explained how his mom would be treated for her disease. This gave the boy a steady source of support – a need that any caring adult can fulfill.

What to say, what to share
Listening to a child's questions and fears is the best start, experts say.  Kids may imagine the worst if they aren't told what to expect, so offering information – after hearing their concerns and fears – is essential.

Kids of different ages need different levels of information. Experts agree that children of all ages should know these 4 things:

  1. What kind of cancer their loved one has – for example, breast cancer or lymphoma.
  2. Where in the body the cancer is located.
  3. What will happen during cancer treatment.
  4.  How their daily lives will change as a result.

Helping them know what to expect
Finding the balance between too little and too much information is the goal. Begin by telling kids how the cancer will affect their loved one. A few examples:

  1. Chemotherapy may make Dad's hair fall out, but it will grow back.
  2. Mom may feel worried, tired or grouchy while she's getting treatment, but she still loves us.
  3. We might not eat dinner together every night, but we'll still spend time together.

Special books just for kids
The American Cancer Society's online bookstore has tools for every family dealing with cancer. Our award-winning books for kids include Mom and the Polka-Dot Boo-Boo, Our Mom is Getting Better and Our Dad is Getting Better. Each explains cancer from a child's perspective, helping young ones discover they're not alone.

And for one-on-one help with any family issue, call 1.800.ACS.2345 anytime, day or night. Our specialists can answer questions and put you in touch with local resources through our Patient Navigation Services network.