Living with cancer in children and teenagers
On this page you will find information on living with cancer in children and teenagers, including how to talk to your child or teenager about their cancer, what to say to their school, how to talk to siblings and where you can get further support.
Talking to your child
When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it can have a huge effect on the whole family. Both you and your child will have many different feelings and emotions.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of caring for a child with cancer is knowing what to say and how much information to give them. Listening to your child is the best support you can provide. Answering questions honestly is best. Some children do not ask questions but this does not mean that they do not want to know what is happening. They may be afraid and uncertain of many things.
Your child’s whole routine is likely to change. They may have to stay in hospital for treatment and they are likely to have regular hospital appointments. The treatment may make them feel unwell for a time and may cause changes in their appearance, such as weight loss or hair loss.
Younger children may be frightened of being separated from their parents. It is important to reassure them that this will not happen. Older children may be more frightened of pain. It can help to reassure them that there will be plenty of medicine to ease their pain. Doctors and nurses will be happy to explain this and can help you to ease your child’s fears.
Young children with cancer
Try to explain the diagnosis and treatment in words your child can understand and include them as much as possible when you talk about their illness. Reassure your child that they did not cause the cancer. Explain that being angry and sad is normal.
Try to keep your child in touch with school pals and other activities. However, they may have to miss certain sports, events, parties and other activities. Tell them they can do all these things when they get better. Do try to arrange some form of activity 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.
Teenagers with cancer
Always give reassurance and encouragement to your teenager and be sure to include them in all discussions about their diagnosis and treatment planning. This includes the benefits, risks, and side-effects. Some teenagers find that knowing about their treatment helps them to get on top of things and have a sense of control.
Your teenager is likely to be worried at times and it may not be easy for them to talk about their fears. Teenagers can be at a stage in their lives when they are naturally trying to be more independent and do things for themselves. To help your teenager deal with fears and feelings, you may want to say “I love you” often.
Ask your teenager to try and share their feelings with family, friends, the cancer team and other staff. Arrange for visits with friends. Teenagers with cancer need and like to be with others their own age. Maintaining a normal routine can be reassuring for your teenager and can help them to feel more secure.
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. This can also help them feel good about themselves.
When your child is able to return to school, teachers should be made fully aware of their condition. Contact with infectious illnesses such as chickenpox and measles can be especially dangerous. 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 letting them know the dangers of illnesses such as chicken pox and measles to 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.
Siblings (brother and sisters) of a child with cancer
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.
See our list of support groups, networks and other resources for children and teenagers with cancer, and their families.
Call our Cancer Nurseline
Freephone 1800 200 700 and speak to one of our cancer nurses for confidential advice, support and information.
It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm