When your child has cancer

 By Alexandra Dunn

“I remember being called into the doctor’s office with my parents. The doctor said that the results of the biopsy of the mole were surprising. That I had melanoma – and then he left the room. I felt confused. I hadn’t had any experience with cancer, and the only reference point I had was Terry Fox. After that, I had two surgeries and my mom had to give me interferon treatments. Parts of the treatment were scary, and I didn’t fully understand what was going on. It’s a blur, but my parents were there supporting me the whole time.” – Frannie(now 24) was 11 when she was diagnosed with melanoma.

Learning your child has cancer is something no parent is prepared for. Your entire world turns upside down, and life will never be the same. Breaking the news to your child is just as difficult. The tips below can help your child understand the situation.

  • Ages two and under:

Children in this age group are too young to understand what cancer is. But they will need reassurance. They are probably going to fear being separated from you and fear painful medical procedures, so it’s important to let them know you’re there to offer support and comfort.

  • Ages three to six:

Children at this age need help understanding what is happening and why. Explain cancer in terms of “good” and “bad” cells (i.e. the doctors are working to get rid of the “bad” cells). Explain that sometimes good cells get hurt in the process, which can make them feel sick or cause their hair to fall out. Children this age can also be scared of painful procedures or worried about being left alone, so offer comfort and reassurance.

  • Ages seven to eleven:

At this stage children begin to understand more about their situation. Be honest. Explain that the body is made up of lots of cells and sometimes cells get confused about their job and mistakenly think their job is to grow. This growing causes the confused cells to become “greedy” and take over the good cells. The doctors are working to get rid of these bad cells with special medicines. Sometimes though, the good cells get hurt too, which can make your child sick or cause their hair to fall out. Even though they might feel worse, it’s very important to get rid of these bad cells before they make them even sicker.

Ages 12 and older:

Your child has probably heard of cancer or known other people affected by it. It’s still important, however, to explain cancer and its effects. Discuss how the body is made up of all kinds of cells: cells make up organs, skin, blood, etc. and all cells have a specific job. Some cells are replaced by new cells regularly. Even though these types of cells are always growing new cells, they usually know when they’re supposed to grow. But if cells get confused and forget what their job is, they can grow out of control. Cancer happens when a cell forgets its job and grows uncontrollably.

Other helpful tips:

  • Regardless of age, assure your child that the cancer isn’t his or her fault.
  • Be honest with your child. This prevents misunderstandings and may help your child co-operate better with treatments.
  • Communicate, especially as the situation changes. Encourage your child to share feelings and ask questions. If you don’t know how to answer a question it’s okay to say you don’t know.
  • Be honest about pain and side effects.
  • Join a support group: finding out your child has cancer is devastating news. Take care of yourself so you can be there to offer love and support!

For more caregiving tips and articles visit www.familycaregiving.ca

Alexandra Dunn works at VHA Home Health Care.