In Part 1 of this series we explained that this series of articles is not meant to be medical advice, but a guide that may help you as a parent of a newly diagnosed child with cancer cope just a bit better.
Information is knowledge, and never more so than when you are dealing with childhood cancer!
These articles are meant to help you be the key part of your child’s treatment that you will need to be.
Take what works for you according to your situation and your child’s temperament, personality, fears, strengths, and how they deal with adversity, and leave what does not pertain to your situation.
Part 4 will deal with Questions Your Child May Ask when they are diagnosed with cancer, regarding how they got cancer, what tests the doctors may conduct, and what treatment they may have to undergo.
Questions Your Child May Ask
Children often naturally curious and may have many questions about their illness and treatment. Your child knows and trusts you and will expect you to have all the answers and to respond to questions honestly. Some children will ask questions immediately they have been diagnosed, while others will ask them later.
Here are some ideas to help you answer some of the questions your child is most likely to ask:
Children normally wonder why they are the one to get cancer, did they do something wrong that they got it and not any of their friends… They often feel that it is their fault that they got cancer, that they somehow caused it. It is important that you assure your child that their getting cancer is not due to anything that they did or did not do!
It is important to explain to your child that not even the doctors are sure what causes cancer, and that nothing anyone did caused them to get it. Also make sure that you tell your child that cancer is not contagious, and that they did not “catch” it from anyone and they cannot give it to anyone either.
Will I Get Well?
Children may know someone in the family or a friend’s family that had cancer and died, so they will obviously be worried that they might die from their cancer. Some children may be worried that they might die but will be too scared to ask if they will get better because they are scared that the answer will be “No!”
It is important that you tell your child, whether they ask or not, that cancer is a serious disease but that all the tests, x-rays, operations that they will undergo are to make sure that they get the right treatment and medicine so that they will get well.
Also be sure to tell your child that everyone from the doctors, to the nurses, carers, physiotherapists or whoever else is on their cancer team, including you and other carers, are trying their best to cure the cancer. This approach will ensure that you are giving your child an answer that is both hopeful and honest. Just knowing that there are so many doctors, nurses, counsellors, and a whole team dedicated to getting them well will also make them feel more secure and hopeful.
What Will Happen to Me?
Your child will experience and undergo many new and scary things when first diagnosed with cancer. They may see other children with cancer who are not feeling well, are bald, or have had amputations when visiting the doctor’s office and this may scare them.
This may make them wonder “Will these things happen to me?” They may develop unrealistic fears about what will happen yet be too afraid to ask. It is for this reason that it is so important to try to get your child to talk about how they are feeling; to share their emotions so that you can allay any fears.
It is important to explain ahead of time about the cancer, the treatment, and possible side effects of any medications, and what the doctor will do to help if there are any side effects. It is also important that you explain that there are many different types of cancer, and what has happened to another child they have seen or heard about may not necessarily happen to them. You can also explain that even when two children have the same type of cancer, what happens to one child will not always happen to the other.
Children should be told about their treatment schedule as well as any changes in their treatment schedule or in the type of treatment they receive. This information is important to help them to prepare for visits to the doctor or hospital. It is a good idea to help your child keep a calendar that shows the days for doctor visits, treatments, or tests.
Why Must I Take Medicine When I Feel Okay?
Children, like most of us, link taking medicine to feeling sick. It is very confusing for children with cancer that they might be feeling fine much of the time yet still have to take medicine or have treatments.
Children do not understand why they have to take medicine when they feel well.
A good way to explain is to remind them of what you told them when they were first diagnosed, about the good and bad cells in their body, something like:
“Although you are feeling well, the bad cells are not gone, they are just hiding. You must take the medicine for a bit longer to find the bad cells and stop them from coming back.”
“What Should I Tell The Other Children At School?”
Children with cancer are concerned about how friends and others at their school will react to their having cancer. This is especially true when they have missed a lot of school or return to school after having been off with obvious physical changes such as weight loss, weight gain, or hair loss.
Encourage your child to keep in touch with close friends and classmates. Friends often want to know what happens when a child is away from school. Encourage your child to talk honestly about the disease and the kind of treatment they are undergoing. Suggest to your child that they can assure friends that they cannot “catch” cancer from anyone. You could also enlist the help of one of your child’s teachers to talk to other students.
Try to help your child understand that not all people know a lot about cancer, and that includes some adults. Tell them that people who don’t understand cancer often act differently or may give him or her incorrect information, and that they should always come to you if they have heard anything that frightens them so that you can tell them the truth and/or correct any misunderstandings that others may have caused.
“Will I Be Able To Do All The Things I Did Before I Got Cancer?”
The answer to this question depends on the child’s type of cancer and treatment. Certain treatments may call for some restrictions at different times during treatment. Explain to your child that this is only temporary and tell them for how long the restriction will last.
Helping your child to substitute one kind of activity for another will make them feel less stressed and less like they are being punished. You could, for example, suggest that friends come over to paint, have a snack, or play video games if the doctor feels that your child should not ride a bike or play sport because the chance of injury is high.
Like adults, children with cancer feel anxious, unsure, and afraid at times. However, unlike many adults, children often find it difficult to talk about their feelings. As a parent, you know how your child usually behaves, so you will probably be the first to notice any differences.
Play is a way for a child to express and reduce fears and anxieties, and you should encourage it. Drawing pictures and playing with puppets, dolls, and even medical supplies are all ways in which children may show that they need more reassurance and love.
Some children find it hard to express their feelings, and may have nightmares or eating or behavioural difficulties. They may not do as well in school, or may even resume behaviours that they had outgrown, such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking
Remember that through the years, you as a parent already have developed a “sixth sense” about your child. You do not need to look for problems in the way your child behaves. If problems exist, they will be obvious to you. If you notice your child is having problems talk to them and reassure them that all will be well. If there are still problems, enlist the help of a professional such as a doctor or nurse on their oncology team or a counsellor.
Once again, do some research on the internet, reach out to an organisation like Little Fighters Cancer Trust for a bit of support and information and/or access to resources that will help you find out more and make an informed decision regarding your child’s treatment.
Remember that you are not alone in this, there are many individuals out there able and willing to lend a hand, some support, or even just listen – do not be afraid to reach out for help!
Part V of this series will deal with “Different Types of Cancer Treatments”