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When Children Are Affected by Terminal Cancer – A Coping Guide

Living with cancer, facing the possibility of dying from cancer, going through treatment, or knowing that a loved one or close family member is living with cancer is a lot to deal with and can cause a great deal of distress. This is true for adults, but imagine what it must be like for a child or a teenager to either be diagnosed with and treated for cancer or to have someone close to them struggling with this disease.

Any type of cancer, but especially fast, aggressive, and deadly cancers like mesothelioma, is a big life change. Helping a young person cope with it is an important responsibility. Parents, older siblings, teachers, and other adults in a child’s or teen’s life can pay a crucial role in helping them understand what is happening, cope with negative emotions, go through treatments, and mourn when the worst happens.

Talking to Children Who Have Cancer

It’s devastating to learn that a child has any type of cancer. Seeing an innocent young person have to live with this terrible disease is awful for a parent or any other adult. But the adults in a child’s life need to be strong and to provide a model for how to live with all the difficulties cancer causes. One of the most important things adults can do is talk to their children about cancer.

Avoiding the subject doesn’t help and may promote greater fear. Age-appropriate conversations will help a child better understand what is happening and what they can expect to happen next, and this allays fear. Parents know their children best, so conversations about cancer should be limited in ways the parent feels is best.

Be prepared to answer any questions your child has. Some common things children ask about include why they get cancer, if they will get better, and what treatment will be like or if it will hurt. Children sometimes think that they did something bad to get cancer, so it is important for parents to reassure them that there was nothing they did to cause it.

Supporting Young People with Cancer

Communicating to an appropriate degree with a child who has cancer is important, but there are also many other ways of supporting them. Anyone living with cancer can expect to experience some significant life changes, so parents and other adults need to help children prepare for and cope with these changes.

There will be appearance changes, for instance, such as hair loss or weight gain. Helping them adapt to these changes is crucial. Creative headwear or making mealtime more fun with healthier dishes can be distracting but also help a child see that there are some upsides to the changes they are going through. Any games or fun activities unrelated to cancer or their body changes are great for distraction and helping a child cope.

Friendships are also likely to change when a child has cancer, and this can be very difficult, even isolating. Parents can help their children by making sure they have time to spend with friends and that they can go to school as much as possible. They can also help children maintain social connections by encouraging friendships with other patients they meet during treatments.

When a Family Member Has Cancer

Children and young adults also struggle when a member of their family has cancer, especially when it’s a parent. It is difficult to know how a child or teen will react to the news that a loved one has cancer, but giving them that news is important. It is not a good secret to keep, and children will know that something is wrong and may be even more afraid if they don’t know what it is.

Age-appropriate discussions of what cancer is and what it means for the future are important. The American Cancer Society recommends that children up to about eight get basic information, while older children should be given more details. While each child will react differently, all children will be less anxious when they are told the truth.

The person living with cancer will be going through some changes, and may often be tired, sick, or unable to do what they normally do. This can be troubling for children, so talking about it is important. Make time to spend with children, even if you can’t do the same activities you would have previously. Play board games instead of basketball, for instance, but do take the time to be together. This will be immensely comforting to a child. It also helps to try to make life as normal as possible, sticking to routines and allowing children and teens to participate in their usual activities.

Mourning a Lost Loved One

When the worst happens and a child loses someone to cancer, a parent, a sibling, or someone else close, they need support and guidance for what is likely their first encounter with real grief. As with a cancer diagnosis, communicating about the loss is important. Allow a child to express feelings and ask questions, and be willing to explain what happened with as much detail as is appropriate. Be truthful, but leave out details you don’t think is needed. For instance, talk about death as what it is. Avoid making confusing statements like talking about a person being asleep.

A healthy grieving process is important for a child’s future mental health. Allow a child to grieve at his or her own pace, and be aware that they tend to grieve in bursts; they may seem fine for a few days and then sad or angry again. Throughout the process, listen to your child, let them share their feelings, and let them have outbursts. Create healthy activities for processing the loss and remembering the loved one, such as creating a memory book or having a small family ceremony to say goodbye. If your child does not seem to be coping in a way that is healthy, consider talking to a mental health professional for guidance.

Supporting Good Mental Health

Whenever cancer is a part of a child’s life, mental health is an important consideration. Children with cancer or with a family member diagnosed with cancer may be more susceptible to things like anxiety, depression, and stress. It is important to be aware of signs that a child may be struggling with mental illness and to intervene. Signs include any unusual changes in behavior, fatigue and other physical complaints with unknown causes, emotional outbursts, changes in sleeping or eating, and lack of interest in normal activities.

Providing support, encouraging normal social interactions, providing appropriate information, and offering fun distractions are all important ways to help a child cope with cancer in a healthy way and to support good mental health. However, sometimes this isn’t enough. If your child is still struggling, despite your best efforts, it may be time to seek professional help. You may want to talk to your pediatrician first, but you should ultimately have your child evaluated by a mental health professional.

Various types of therapy can help a child who can’t seem to cope with the negative emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis. There are therapists who specialize in working with children and working with cancer patients, and they can provide constructive behavioral therapies to help your child recognize and change negative thought patterns. Alternative therapies, like music therapy, play therapy, or art therapy can also be healthy coping strategies for children and teens.

It is an unfortunate reality that children and teens often have to face cancer, either in themselves or a family member. It is up to the adults in their lives to support them, guide them, and listen to them. A strong social support system, honest communication, and a healthy grieving process are essential for ensuring a child will get through this period and recover.

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