Treatment & Support

When Your Child Has Cancer: Explaining To The Children When They Are Diagnosed With Cancer

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It can be challenging to explain to a child that he/she has been diagnosed with cancer. If the message was not communicated appropriately, the child may feel isolated, scared, and imagine unrealistic worst-case scenarios. Hence, the delivery of a child’s cancer diagnosis is extremely important; talking about the diagnosis may help them feel more included, and cared for.

When explaining cancer to a child, you will need to be tactful and be prepared to manage your emotions. You can ask a medical professional or a counsellor to provide an accurate description of your child’s particular cancer and treatment or request for them to take part in breaking the news to your child.

The following are some suggestions for explaining a cancer diagnosis to a child:

  • Use familiar images and words that allow age-appropriate discussions in simple forms. Other age appropriate illustrations can be used too.
  • Explain that there are many forms of cancer and that this kind may be different from the ones they have heard about. Elaborate that people do not always die from cancer. Explain that some people do die from cancer, but doctors and nurses can make some kinds go away.
  • Tell your child that cancer treatment may mean spending a lot of time going to doctors and hospitals, getting very special medicines and treatments.
  • Explain that cancer means that something inside the body is growing in a wrong way or growing out of control. You cannot always see it. State which body parts or systems are involved and what symptoms or effects are being caused by the disease.
  • Use all the terms the child might encounter (such as leukemia, lymphoma, AML, ALL). This will help the child to not be surprised or frightened when people use these terms.
  • Explain the difference between ordinary “sickness” and cancer (especially for siblings, who might panic at ordinary bumps, bruises, or fever).
  • Reassure the child that cancer is not contagious.
  • Children often need a lot of assurances that that they did not, by any means, cause the cancer.
  • Talk about the very special medicines for cancer, which are not like regular medicines. This medicine may make the child feel sick, throw up, be tired, lose hair, lose or gain weight. Take some time to go through possible changes in appearance. Continually reassure the child that none of this is his/her fault.
  • Talk about the types of activities that the child can partake in or will have to avoid during the treatment. For example, he or she might not be able to ride a bike, swim, or attend school for the time being. Focus on cultivating other strengths and abilities of the individual child.
  • Give the child hope by planning appropriate activities that he/she can look forward to after completion of each part/regime of the treatment. For example, during a 2-week break in between chemotherapy, you can plan for an outing.
  • Communicate to the child that the family and the doctors are doing everything possible to make the child better. Children need to know that treating the cancer will be difficult but that you will stick together to get through it.
  • Give a time frame. Explain that treatment will take certain number of months or years and there may be delays.
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