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How to Help Kids with Cancer Cope with Their Diagnosis

If you're a parent, you already know that kids don't do very well with change. Whether it's an unexpected vegetable at dinner or a new baby in the house, you're liable to be confronted with a full-on meltdown if you're unprepared.

When a child is diagnosed with pediatric cancer, the changes they have to cope with are on a completely different level. First, there's explaining what cancer actually is, and then there's explaining why they're getting poked with needles and sent though scanners on a repeated basis.

It's really important for kids to understand what to expect, and never is that more true than during an extremely hard time. Understanding what to expect — even if what's going to happen is scary or hard — gives them time to process what's happening to them and reduces their anxiety. 

If your child has been diagnosed with cancer, here's how to help them cope:

  1. Explain what cancer is in an honest, age-appropriate way.
  2. Show them how their daily life will be affected by their treatment.
  3. Give them props for being brave and resilient.

As an adult cancer survivor, I understand how confusing treatment can be, and I'm a grown-up. That's why we need to be extra thorough when we talk to kids about their treatment.

1. Explain what cancer is an honest, age-appropriate way.

It can be tempting to lie to our kids. After all, this is a super hard, awful conversation to have. The truth is, though, that kids are pretty resilient, and it's absolutely imperative that you explain to your child what they can expect from treatment.

While cancer can be kind of complicated, the science of it is actually not that confusing: one cell is broken (or confused) and doesn't know what its job is anymore, and it keeps making more and more cells. Those cells end up taking up room in the body, making it hard for other cells to do their jobs.

The best way to explain the science of cancer is with a book that kids can reference again and again. It's important to choose a book that's literal without being to technical. For example, describing brain cancer as a "storm in your brain" can be confusing, because kids are so literal. But you also don't want a textbook that goes over everyone's heads.

2. Show kids how treatment will affect their day-to-day.

A lot goes on during treatment. Driving back and forth between doctor appointments and the hospital, chemo at the clinic and chemo at the hospital, scans, and blood draws . . . it's hard enough for adults to keep track of, and they have a calendar on their phone!

Keeping some semblance of structure and routine during treatment is absolutely necessary. Every day should start and end the same way (brushing teeth, putting on pajamas or getting dressed, reading together, etc), no matter whether you're in the hospital or at home.

On a weekly basis, you can — and should — use a visual calendar to show your child when their appointments are, when they'll be home and when they'll be in the hospital, and more. This will help them emotionally prepare for the week ahead and give them time to process what's happening and ask questions.

3. Give them props for resilience.

Resilience is about learning to trust that you can handle hard things. When your child handles something hard, like a blood draw or a CT scan — even if they cry — make sure you give them props for getting through it.

Knowing that they handled something hard once already gives them the confidence to face it the next time, and the next time, and the next time.

Pediatric cancer is incredibly hard for everyone in the family, especially for parents, for whom it's terrifying. Helping your child cope with their own anxiety helps you remove some of yours, as well.

This is the thought behind the new Kids Cancer Book & Calendar Set, now on Kickstarter

Each book explains the science of cancer in an honest, age-appropriate way, and then shows kids what they can expect day-to-day. 

The book doesn't answer your child's very real personal questions, though, which is why we also include a magnetic visual calendar. Using steel buttons for every treatment and appointment, your kids can answer questions like "when do I have a scan day?" or "when is chemo?" for themselves, over and over.

For more information on this product, please visit the Kickstarter page. We also have a great, free guide for talking to your kids using a visual calendar.

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher

Sara Olsher is the Founder + CEO of Mighty + Bright. She's a young cancer survivor, mom, and former single mom.

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