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Living with cancer, or knowing a loved one is living with cancer can cause a great deal of stress. While this is true for anyone, it can be particularly difficult for teens and children. While any type of cancer can present big life changes, fast, aggressive, and deadly cancers can be particularly devastating. Helping a young person cope with cancer is an important responsibility. Parents, older siblings, teachers, and other adults play a crucial role in helping them understand, deal with negative emotions, go through treatments, and mourn when the worst happens.
Talking to Children Who Have Cancer
It’s devastating when a child is diagnosed with cancer. Seeing an innocent young person live with this terrible disease is awful for parents and other adults. However, adults in a child’s life must be strong and model how to live with the difficulties of cancer.
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. It can also let them know what to expect and help allay fear. Parents know their children, so conversations about cancer should be limited in ways the parent feels is best.
Be prepared to answer any questions your child. Some common things children ask include why they get cancer, if they will get better, and what treatment will be like. Children sometimes think 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 appropriately with a child who has cancer is important, but there are many other ways to support them. Anyone living with cancer can expect significant life changes, so parents and other adults need to help children prepare for these changes.
For example, there will be changes in appearance, such as hair loss or weight gain. Helping children adapt to these changes is crucial. Creative head wear or making mealtime more fun can be distracting but also help a child see some upsides to the changes they are going through. Games or fun activities unrelated to cancer are great for distraction and helping a child cope.
Friendships are also likely to change when a child has cancer. This can be very difficult and leave a child feeling isolated. Parents can help their child by making sure they have time to spend with friends. In addition, parents should be sure their child can attend 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 family member has cancer, especially when that person is a parent. It is difficult to know how a child or teen will react to a loved one with cancer, but giving them that news is important. Cancer is not a good secret to keep. Children can often sense when something is wrong and may be 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 eight get basic information. 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 participate in normal activities. 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. For example, you can play board games instead of basketball. Quality time can be immensely comforting to a child. It also helps 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, they need support during 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. Be willing to explain what happened with as much detail as is appropriate. Be truthful, but leave out details that are not necessary. For instance, talk about death and avoid making confusing statements 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 grief often happens in bursts. A child may seem fine for a few days and then suddenly turn sad or angry again. Throughout the process, listen to your child, let them share their feelings, and allow them to have emotional outbursts. Create healthy activities for remembering the loved one. This could include creating a memory book or having a small family ceremony to say goodbye. If your child does not seem to be coping in a healthy way, 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 dealing with cancer, either their own or a loved one’s, may be more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and stress. Be aware of signs that a child may be struggling with mental illness. Signs include 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. However, sometimes this isn’t enough. If your child is still struggling, it may be time to seek professional help. While you may choose 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 cope with negative emotions brought on by a cancer diagnosis. There are therapists who specialize in working with children and cancer patients. These therapists 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 unfortunate that children and teens must sometimes face cancer, either in themselves or a family member. It is up to adults in their lives to support them, guide them, and listen. A strong social support system, honest communication, and a healthy grieving process are essential for helping a child get through this period.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.