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Helping Children Understand Cancer

08/25/2013 09:22PM ● Published by Publisher

Helping Children Understand Cancer

By Susan Eleeson, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, Chronic Disease, Sanford Health


A cancer diagnosis is an abrupt stop to life.  You might be scared, angry and uncertain. While the news is deeply personal, it is important for parents to remember that their children are going to begin a journey of their own as their mother or father start treatment.

Children should be educated about what is happening and be provided with age-appropriate information. It might be helpful for parents to rehearse how they are going to tell children about a diagnosis. They should remember to emphasis that cancer is not contagious and was not caused by anything they did. Without the proper information, children might develop their own theories about what is happening. It is OK if parents do not know the answer to one of their children’s questions; they can promise to find out, inquire with their physician and make a deliberate effort to follow up with an answer.  Questions or thoughts come and go quickly with children of all ages, so encouraging them to keep a special notebook for these can help kids feel heard about their concerns.

 Communicating with teenagers creates an additional challenge. They can process more complex information but are often times more unpredictable than younger children. A parent can encourage their teenager to explore an outlet like athletics, music or journaling.   A teenager may feel the need to put their life on hold while a parent battles cancer, but a normal social and extracurricular routine can serve a therapeutic purpose for a 16 year old.

It is important for children, including teenagers, to talk about how they feel. Those conversations need not be limited to parents. A strong support system of relatives, friends, teachers and members of a care team is a stabilizing force as a family maneuvers through cancer. Communication is key, and while a cancer treatments might leave a parent with less energy, a concentrated effort to keep information flowing creates an open channel for children to express their feelings throughout the coping process.

 Parents must keep the love for their children at the forefront. While a cancer diagnosis will change a family’s situation, a parent’s love will not change. It is impossible for a parent to be prepared for everything. Nonetheless, developing a caring and nurturing family environment is an effective way to navigate through a cancer diagnosis.

Additional Resources:

CarePages is an online forum that connects individuals with others who know what it means to experience a life-changing, health-related event. https://www.carepages.com

Catholic Family Services assists families with a variety of needs, including adoption services, grief counseling, and support for those living with chronic illness. http://www.sfcatholic.org/cfs/

 Helpline Center is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide support and offer assistance for individuals and families and connect them to other resources based on their needs. http://helplinecenter.org

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