Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Explaining Cancer and Side-Effects to Children

Almost everyone knows someone affected by cancer, but how do you explain cancer to children? How much should you tell them? What if the child is the patient?



If the child is old enough to ask intelligent questions he or she deserves intelligent answers.

Below is an excerpt from my children's book, "The Bald-Headed Princess"http://www.maribethditmars.com/

…"What the heck is cancer anyway?"
"Well, the doctor says it's when one cell goes haywire, 'abnormal'and starts making lots of other abnormal cells.  They crowd out the good cells, and they have to be killed off with strong medicine called chemotherapy…"

The child may know someone elderly who died of cancer, and become frightened. Be sure to explain that not all cancers are the same. Nowadays the survival rate for most childhood cancers is very high.

It lessons the child's anxiety when they know what to expect. Cancers with long protocols require minor surgery to insert a mediport, a catheter or tube that goes just under the skin and connects to a vein. When the nurses explained to my son, Chris, who was a leukemia patient, that the mediport would mean no more needle sticks he was happy to oblige. Knowing the purpose behind the surgery made it less frightening.

The side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly, depending  upon the diagnosis and the youngster's tolerance level, but most patients experience some nausea. Hair loss is also very common. It is important to explain this to the child ahead of time so he or she is not caught by surprise. Children are naturally curious and they appreciate understanding why.

Explain that since chemotherapy is designed to kill fast growing cancer cells, and hair and stomach cells grow fast, they are frequently affected. Fortunately there are great anti-nausea drugs to make your child feel better.

It is inevitable that a child will become upset when they find out they will most likely lose their hair for a while. This is a good time to reassure them that it always grows back when treatment is over. Some children enjoy wigs and colorful hats.

The chemo also kills cells that fight infection. Explain to your child that those cells are part of your immune system. A weakened immune system means that they may need to miss school and avoid crowds. Doctors will refer to 'blood counts'. They use blood work to 'count' how many germ fighting cells are in the bloodstream.



From the Bald-Headed Princess: " …The best thing about chemotherapy is that it does a good job killing cancer. The worst thing is that it also does a good job killing the cells inside you that fight off germsMom says that the chemo will make my blood counts continue to drop, and then they will slowly come back up again."

Kids are almost always resilient, and they quickly learn to adapt to life on treatment. Reassure them they will still have time to play and have friendships. Their activity level will be affected at times, and there will be periods of isolation when they are  immunosuppressed, but they will also have "up" periods in their chemo cycle when normal activities can be enjoyed. Always make the most of those times!

If the doctor gives the okay let your young patient be a kid! Most likely your child will have frequent lab tests so you will know when it is safe for them to be around others. Being overprotective won't heal them any faster, and it may cause them to despair.



The best people to explain life on treatment are other kids. When my Chris was first diagnosed the hospital staff had a teenager with a similar diagnosis explain to him what to expect. After Chris became an 'expert' he was called upon to help other new patients. He enjoyed doing it and made new friends in the process. If you have a newly diagnosed child ask your doctor to refer you to another family for advice and support.

Your child's oncologist can also refer you to many wonderful organizations for emotional, educational, and even financial support.

If your child is not the patient, but has a friend or family member battling cancer, understanding the treatment process may lesson their feelings of loss when their friend can't come out and play. This is a golden opportunity to teach compassion and altruism. Chris loved it when his friends came over and played video games by his bedside. Perhaps you and your child can schedule a special activity when the patients counts are up. 


What if someone your child loves is dying of cancer? What if your child is given a grim prognosis? No one wants to talk about this, but if you don't, you are missing the opportunity to teach your child the greatest lesson of all—that this life is temporary!

Proverbs 8:35: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand…"


I once read an article in The New England Journal of Medicine that 75% of parents with terminally ill children do not discuss heaven or eternity with their children. I was both astounded and deeply saddened.

My beloved Chris did not survive his cancer, but he passed peacefully, unafraid, fully aware of where he was headed. The greatest gift that you can give a terminally ill patient is to share your faith.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating and it is normal to question God. If you are unsure reach out to your believing friends, a local church or hospital chaplain. Don't trudge this journey alone! 

1 Peter 5:10: "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."