- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about treatment
- Hospital visits
Cancer treatment can involve short but frequent visits to the hospital as an outpatient (day treatment) or a longer stint as an inpatient (staying one or more nights).
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A visit to hospital can seem strange and confronting for a person of any age, but especially for children. They may have to have a COVID test and wear a mask.
You may worry that your children will get anxious if they see people with cancer in hospital or having treatment. If you are a parent with cancer, however, you may also worry about your kids being separated from you.
Reassure them that hospitals are special places where people are given good care; children’s fears may be worse than the reality. Ask your kids if they want to go to the hospital or treatment centre. If they would prefer not to go, don’t insist on them visiting.
Preparing for a hospital visit
If children are keen to visit, the following tips may help prepare them.
- Before children enter the hospital room, tell them what to expect and what they may notice: the equipment; different smells and noises (e.g. buzzers, beeps); how you may look (e.g. tubes, bandages, a drip or catheter bag full of urine hanging on the side of the bed); doctors and nurses might keep coming in and out to check on the patients.
- You may be able to arrange with the nursing staff for children to look at pictures or see some of the equipment in an empty room before visiting you.
- If your kids are reluctant to go to the hospital, their first visit could just be to the ward lounge room. Reassure them that this is okay and that they can send a card or call, if they prefer.
- Let your kids decide how long they want to stay. Small children tend to get bored quickly and want to leave soon after arrival. They may want to help by getting you a drink or magazine from the hospital shop.
- Have a friend or relative come along. They can take the kids out of the room if they feel overwhelmed and then take them home when they’re ready to leave.
- Bring art materials, books or toys to keep them occupied. Older children may want to play cards or board games with you. Or you could simply watch TV or listen to music together.
- If you have to travel for treatment and your children are unable to visit, use video calling on a mobile phone to communicate. Learn some tips for staying connected with your kids.
- If the hospital stay will be longer, ask the kids to make the room cosy with a framed photo or artwork they’ve made.
- After the visit, talk to them about how they felt and answer any questions they may have.
- Ask the staff for support. Nursing staff and hospital social workers are sensitive to children’s needs during this difficult time and could talk to your children if necessary.
How to play in hospital
If your child is visiting you – or a sibling or friend – in hospital, explain beforehand that you may not feel well enough to play or talk much but will be happy that they care enough to visit. Some activities you could try include:
- card games
- board games
- drawing games, such as folding a sheet of paper into thirds then taking turns to draw the head, middle and legs of a character
- shared imaginary play with toys
- simple craft
- using your laptop or tablet to watch a favourite movie or program together.
Cancer and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many changes, including increased awareness of the importance of hygiene. When cancer treatment (e.g. chemotherapy) affects a parent’s or a child’s immune system, family members may become anxious about hygiene and go to extra lengths to protect their family from COVID-19 or other infections. You can reassure children and teenagers that routine hygiene practices are okay, and that you will tell them if extra measures are needed.
Podcast: Explaining Cancer to Kids
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.