Often parents have a hard time telling their child about cancer. From years of experience, we know that not telling your child the truth can be harmful. Children quickly sense when something is wrong and can react by feeling lonely and separated from family and friends. Children often imagine that things are worse than they are.
You may be asking yourself, “Why should I tell my child about cancer”? Many parents want to protect their children by not telling them any information they think might be frightening. In truth, the world is scarier for children when they do not know what is happening to them and around them. The benefits of talking with your child about cancer and its treatment are:
- Your child can build trust in both you and the health-care team.
- Your child will know what to expect.
- Children fill in gaps of information with their imagination. Honest information helps correct any false ideas about cancer and cancer treatment.
- If your child understands the importance of doing some things (for instance, taking medicines, coming to the hospital, getting spinal taps, etc.) he or she may be more cooperative during treatments.
- Knowing and understanding their illness allows children to have a sense of control during times when they feel out of control.
- You can help your child learn how to get through difficult situations.
- Your child will develop a skill that will be useful later in life.
Parents should consider their child's age when choosing the words that are used to talk about what cancer is and how it is treated. Your child life specialist at the hospital can help you find ways to explain the diagnosis and treatment. You may use coloring books, teaching dolls and other materials to help your child understand. Keep in mind that children learn from doing, seeing and hearing things over and over. You may need to tell your child about cancer more than once. As children grow older, they may need and want to know more about their cancer and treatment.
Also see GREAT information fact sheet: Children learn through play
Cancer is no one's fault.
Many children with cancer, as well as their brothers, sisters and even parents, may believe cancer is caused by something they did or didn't do, something they said or something they thought. But what we think, say and do cannot cause someone to get cancer. Cancer is not anyone's fault.
Cancer is NOT contagious.
You cannot catch cancer from someone else.
Cancer causes hair to fall out.
Many children believe that the cancer causes their hair to fall out. Actually, the chemotherapy or radiation treatment causes hair to fall out. Remember to tell your child that in most cases, the hair will grow back when the treatment is finished.
Also see GREAT information fact sheet: Helping your child/teen cope with body changes
Cancer in children is the same as cancer in adults.
Some children may have known an adult who was very sick with cancer or who may have died of the disease. Today, many children do very well with cancer treatments. Generally, children have much more energy and cope better than adults with cancer.
Here are some tips to use when talking with your child about cancer. Remember that you will need to share more or less information depending on your child's age. Keep in mind that UC Davis Children's Hospital has trained professionals, child life specialist, who can help you find ways to explain cancer to your child.
Also see GREAT information fact sheet: How patients and siblings react to hospital care
What is cancer?
To help your child understand about cancer, first talk about how healthy bodies work. Cells are the building blocks of our bodies. Every part of the body is made of cells (hair, bones, blood, heart, skin, etc.). In healthy bodies, cells work together to help us look the way we look and feel the way we feel.
After explaining how the healthy body works, talk with your child about cancer. Avoid using “bad cells” and “good cells” when talking about cancer, so that children don't think they have “bad cells because they are “bad kids” or did something wrong. Instead, use the words “sick cells” and “healthy cells.”
Types of cancer
Bone marrow is a factory where our blood is made deep inside our bones. It makes red blood cells (which carry oxygen and nutrients through the body), white blood cells (which fight germs and infections) and platelets (which help stop bleeding). Leukemia is a cancer of the blood. Leukemia cells are sick blood cells that do not work properly and crowd out healthy blood cells. Also see GREAT information fact sheet: Talking with your child or teen about having leukemia
- Lymphoma and Hodgkin disease
The body has a defense system, the immune system. The immune system finds cells that are not healthy or cells that do not belong in the body and destroys them. The immune system stores fighter cells in lymphoid tissues in the body. Lymphoma and Hodgkin's disease are cancers of the immune system and lymphoid tissues. The sick cells do not work properly to protect the body and crowd out healthy cells of the immune system.
- Solid tumors Explain the normal job of the area of the body where the cancer is located. (For example, talk about how leg bones support your body and help you walk and do the things you like to do.) A solid tumor is a lump of sick cells stuck together. These sick cells crowd out the healthy cells and keep them from doing their job. Also see GREAT information fact sheet: Talking to your child/teen about having solid tumor
You may ask your child what he or she thinks causes cancer. You will have a chance to correct any myths that your child may believe.
Types of treatment
After talking about what cancer is, talk with your child about cancer treatments. Be specific about the types of treatments your child will receive. Explain that other children with different types of cancer may receive different types of treatment or different amounts of the same treatment.
Chemotherapy, often called chemo, is medicine that gets rid of fast-growing cells. Cancer cells grow very fast. Chemotherapy is given to get rid of cancer cells. Our bodies also have healthy cells that grow fast. Chemotherapy hurts these cells too, but they usually get better. When chemotherapy attacks healthy cells, children may have side effects such as hair loss, upset stomach, mouth sores, fever, tiredness or infection. Not all children have all of these side effects. The side effects that your child may have depend on the type of medicine that he or she gets. Your treatment team will talk with you about what to expect based on your child's treatment plan.
Radiation uses strong energy rays that you cannot see or feel. Machines focus these rays on the area of the body where the cancer is located. Radiation destroys sick cells to stop them from growing and spreading. Radiation can also hurt healthy cells that are close to the tumor, but they usually get better. When radiation hurts healthy cells, children may have side effects such as hair loss (if the head is radiated), upset stomach, vomiting, mouth sores, tiredness, fever and redness of the skin. Not all children have all of these side effects. The side effects that your child may have depend on the place where the radiation is given and the dose of radiation. Your treatment team will be able to discuss with you what to expect based on your child's treatment plan.
Surgery is when a special doctor takes out all or part of your tumor. During surgery you are given a special medicine (anesthesia) that allows you to be in a deep sleep so you cannot feel or see anything.
After talking with your child about cancer and cancer treatment, talk with your child about feelings. Assure your child that any feeling he or she has is normal. Many times, children will feel angry, guilty, sad, lonely, scared and sometimes even happy. Any feeling is all right.
Be honest with your child about your feelings. Children sense when something is bothering you. If you do not share your feelings or admit something is bothering you, your child may be scared. Sharing your feelings sends the message that it is okay to feel upset or angry.
Information adapted from the "Family Handbook for Children with Cancer."
CureSearch/Children's Oncology Group. Last updated 5/2007.