Life during treatment for children's cancer

Doctor talking to a young boy

Your child’s whole routine is likely to change during treatment:

  • They are likely to have regular hospital appointments, which may involve a lot of travel. 
  • They may have to stay in hospital overnight for treatment.

  • The treatment may make them feel unwell for a time and may cause changes in their appearance, such as weight loss or hair loss.
  • They may miss out their school or normal social activities and hobbies.

School

  • If your child has to miss school, make plans with teachers so that he or she can keep up with schoolwork as much as possible. 
  • When your child is able to return to school, give teachers full information about their condition. Contact with infectious illnesses such as chickenpox and measles can be especially dangerous if their immune system is low.

    If your child does come into contact with such illnesses, he or she may need to take medication to prevent the infection developing.

  • You should also let parents of classmates know about possible risks to your child’s health. For example, you could write a short letter to teachers and parents warning them about how illnesses such as chicken pox and measles could affect your child.

    You could ask them to contact you if their child shows any signs of these diseases so that you can keep your child at home. You could also explain that the best way to protect your child is to make sure that all classmates have had the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

  • If your child has brothers and sisters, you should also make sure that they have had the MMR vaccine.
  • Try to keep your child in touch with school pals and other activities. They may have to miss certain sports, events, parties and other activities, depending on their treatment schedule and general health. Tell them they can do all these things when they get better.

    Try to arrange some form of activity for them during the day. Playing cards, video games and art might help to pass the time. Sending texts and emailing friends will keep them busy too.

Looking after brothers and sisters

  • Always keep siblings up-to-date and included in discussions and visits to hospital. It is important to give clear information about their brother’s or sister’s diagnosis and treatment. You can also find out if the hospital has a special support group for siblings.
  • Arrange for siblings to stay in school and do other activities as much as possible. Talk with them about questions their classmates and friends may ask. For example, you could help them to think of possible questions and answers so that they will feel comfortable talking about their brother’s or sister’s illness.
  • Explain that even though you may have less time for them during treatment, they are still loved and valued just as much as the sick child. Take time to talk to them about their feelings and reassure them that they could not have caused the illness. Try to spend a little time with them doing the things they like.
  • Ask other family members and friends to spend time with the older children in the family. It may be a good idea for one family member or friend to take a special interest in each sibling and attend their school functions, games or help with homework.

Partners, family and friends

Work together and share the burden: 

It can help to share the burden of having a sick child. This can mean working together with your partner, family members or friends to:

  • Support each other with practical tasks, like going to hospital with your child, minding other children or organising things at home,
  • Sharing the emotional burden, by talking about feelings together and supporting each other.
  • Making sense of the illness. Two heads are better than one when it comes to understanding what the diagnosis and treatment mean. Try to attend important appointments together, such as meeting the consultant. 

Looking after yourself

Take a break

Make a conscious decision to take a mental step back from your sick child from time to time. Take opportunities to spend time by yourself, and with your partner, children, friends, or family.  

Get a babysitter occasionally so that you can each pursue your own interests, or go out for a few hours. 

Ask for help if you need it

Coping with having a child with cancer may bring a couple together. Sometimes, though, the new crisis puts a strain on a relationship. If you feel this is happening, ask for help. The medical social worker is there to help you during this difficult time. 

Seek support from parents groups

There are various groups that can offer you, as parents and guardians, extra support. In parent groups you can meet other parents with similar fears and worries. Learn more about services and support for families affected by a children's cancer diagnosis.

Travel costs and practical help

Looking after a sick child can cause unexpected expenses and difficulties. Often parents living outside the Dublin area face the added difficulties of travel and having to organise the care of their families for longer periods while away.

For some there is the added problem of living in an isolated area. Do ask for help from family, friends and neighbours in coping with your new routine. They may be happy to prepare a meal, do a school run, or help with laundry, as they wish to help in a practical way.

The medical social worker will be able to give you advice about benefits to which you may be entitled and other financial support, such as grants.

Advice for one-parent families

Being a lone parent of a child with a life-threatening illness can be especially difficult in this case. There may be less support readily available to give you emotional support or to help you with the practical aspects. You may also have difficulties juggling work commitments and caring for your sick child. Try to find people to talk with and to help with your family’s day-to-day needs.

The medical social worker can be a great support at this time. Your family, neighbours, clergy or religious leader may be able to help too. Employers may find or arrange special ways for you to do your job and still be with your child. Try to be as clear and specific as possible about what your needs are and 

How can I keep things as normal as possible? 

One of the best ways to keep things as normal as possible is to stick to familiar routines and let your children be children.

Another way is to try to involve your child in your day-to-day activities. This means sharing both good and bad experiences. This can increase the bonds between you even more. Hospital visits don’t have to be depressing for children but can be a chance to have some fun and adventure.

It is important that plans made with children about visiting the hospital are kept, especially if you are living some distance which may not allow for daily visits.

Explain how the hospital works 

Children may be curious about how a hospital ‘works’. It may be possible for a member of staff to explain how different pieces of equipment work. 

Let children help out 

At home your children could help bring you meals or get things for you like books, papers or personal items. If your children feel they are being of help, it will make them feel better. 

Draw pictures

Young children can be encouraged to draw pictures about the experience of cancer. For example, a visit to the hospital, who they met, what they saw. This can be a good way to express emotions and a chance for you to talk about it together. 

Write about emotions 

You can encourage your teenage children to keep a journal or diary. This may help them to express their emotions and feelings. 

Have some fun

Though it is easier said than done, try not to let your illness take over. Family outings, such as trips to the zoo, cinema or school plays, are still important.

You could let your children know that it is all right to joke and to have fun. Laughter can often relieve tension and make everyone relax.

For more information

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