When a child has cancer

Your child may have a peer who has been diagnosed with cancer. While children often have some exposure to cancer, usually it’s an adult in their life who is affected (e.g. a relative or teacher). It can be confusing and frightening for a child to learn that children can be diagnosed with cancer too. There are many ways you can help your child cope with another child’s cancer diagnosis.

Causes of cancer

Let your child know that childhood cancers are not lifestyle-related (e.g. sun exposure or caused by smoking), nor does a child get cancer because of naughty behaviour or a minor accident like a bump on the head. There’s nothing anyone did to cause the cancer.

It’s not contagious

Children need to feel safe around the child with cancer. Tell them that cancer can’t be passed on to other people. If the sick child is in isolation, this is to protect them from infection, not to protect everyone else.

Things will change

Explain that things will change for the friend or relative. They may not have as much energy to play or may be absent from school a lot. They may have physical changes (e.g. hair loss, wheelchair). Ask your child to focus on what hasn’t changed – their personality and friendship.

Maintain the relationship

If possible, give your child the opportunity to maintain their friendship with the child with cancer. They probably won’t see each other as often and they may not interact in the same way, but both children will benefit.

Visit the hospital

Take your child to visit their friend or relative in hospital if you can. It is confusing and daunting for your child if the person with cancer disappears from their life after diagnosis. They may imagine the worst.

Keep in touch

Take time to help your child keep in contact with their friend. You could make a get well card, write a letter, make a decoration for their hospital room or design a board game. For older children, phone, email and web contact help them maintain their links to the child having cancer treatment.

Encourage feelings

Allow your child the opportunity to have fears and grieve. They need to feel that they can approach you when they want to discuss what they’re going through. Being honest with each other about fears and feelings can positively affect your relationship with your child and help your child’s wellbeing and ability to cope.

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