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Dealing with childhood (paediatric) cancer

6-minute read

If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, there will be physical, emotional and practical challenges ahead. But there is lots of support and information out there to help both you and your family.

The diagnosis

It can be overwhelming to discover your child has cancer. You might be feeling shock, anger, sadness or disbelief. The diagnosis can affect everyone around the child, including teachers, friends and extended family. Remember, you are not alone.

Every year, more than 850 children under 14 are diagnosed with cancer in Australia, including more than 350 children under 5.

However, parents today have more reason to be hopeful than ever before. Years ago, most children did not survive cancer. But now more than 8 out of 10 children survive. The outlook for your child depends on what sort of cancer they have.

Telling your child

Talking to young children about cancer isn’t easy. But they have a right to know. In fact, not telling them can make things worse. It can make them anxious because they will probably sense something is wrong. It’s better for them to discuss it with you than to find out from someone else.

How much information you give the child with cancer and other children in the family depends on their age and emotional development. Just be as open and honest as you can. Try to involve your child in talking about their care if you can.

Diagnosis and treatment

Cancer diagnosis and treatment involves a lot of tests and procedures in hospital. Some of these can be painful or can make your child feel very unwell. It’s a challenging time for you as well as the child.

The health professionals will work with you to look after your child. They are very experienced in using play and other techniques to make it more comfortable for children. Your role is very important. It’s your job to reassure your child, give them cuddles and distract them.

healthdirect’s question builder can ensure you get the most out of medical appointments by helping you choose the right questions to ask. Question Builder will also put them in a handy format for when you attend the appointment.

For more information on helping your child cope with tests and procedures, you can visit the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne website.

Helping your child cope

Young children with cancer are often upset to be away from their parents and siblings, and may be confused and unhappy about not being able to play as normal.

They might be more clingy, and cry or scream more than usual, or become uncooperative during medical tests and treatment. You might also notice changes to their sleeping patterns and toileting. Some might ‘regress’, meaning they act as though they are younger than they actually are. They might stop doing things they knew how to do before. Or, they might become withdrawn and not want to play as much.

Sticking to your normal routines and boundaries and giving your child lots of love are the best ways to help them cope. Whenever it’s possible, let them play, go to childcare and be with other children. The doctors and nurses looking after your child will tell you what’s safe.

Your other children

Other children might be frightened and upset about their sibling’s cancer. They might also feel left out and jealous if you are spending a lot of time away from them to look after the child with cancer. Their behaviour might change and if they’re at school their marks might be affected.

It can help to be open and honest and give them as much information as possible. Trying to stick to normal family routines and activities and talking to their school or childcare will also help.

It’s important to explain to them that you can’t ‘catch’ cancer. But if they don’t like going to the hospital, don’t force them.

Looking after yourself

When you learn your child has cancer, you might feel angry, sad, guilty, afraid or just numb. This is all normal.

Many parents cope by focusing on their child and what has to be done to make them well. The calmer, more reassuring and loving you are, the better your child will be able to cope.

It’s a good idea to find out as much as you can about your child’s cancer and the treatment options. Your doctor can advise you how to do this.

There will be plenty of support available from the staff at the hospital, and probably from your family and friends as well. Try not to do this alone – people want to help, you just have to let them. Having someone to do the washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning will give you more time to focus on what needs to be done for your child.

Having a child with cancer can put a strain on the whole family. It’s a good idea to stick to your normal family life as much as possible and to take time out for you and your partner.

Where to find support

There is plenty of support for parents of children with cancer. A good first step is to call the Cancer Council on 13 11 20 to talk to a trained professional.

There are services available to help you financially. For example, you might be eligible for subsidised travel and accommodation if you need to travel for treatment. Ask the Cancer Council or talk to the social worker at the hospital.

Many parents find it helpful to join a support group, either face to face or online. For more information visit Cancer Connect.

Canteen's and Camp Quality's online community Parenting through cancer provides free expert advice, counselling and a chance to connect with other parents in similar situations.

Many hospitals provide education and activities for children with cancer. They may also have an educational psychologist and counsellor to help them during their time in hospital.

If you are in crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14, which is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 for information and support.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021

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