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Kids and Cancer: Tools to Help Them (And You) Cope

By Heather Millar

mother holding daughter

Next week, my 12-year-old daughter starts junior high, which will mean more homework, more structure, and of course, all the social, physical and emotional changes that attend any junior high school kid. This week, her school went on a short trip so that everyone could get to know each other.

In the day before I dropped her off for the trip, I realized that she was incredibly nervous about junior high. Usually a gregarious kid, she started saying things like, “I don’t know why I have to meet new people anyway.” Usually up for any kind of travel, she kept saying, “I don’t want to go.” You’d think I was taking her to her execution, rather than to a lovely day and a half at a ranch in Sonoma.

All of this pre-teen anxiety reminded me of how much our children’s minds are a foreign country. Too often, as adults, we project our own feelings and ideas onto our children. Too often, we forget that kids’ brains are still developing. Children don’t see, understand, or feel things the way that grown ups do.

There was nothing that I could say that would make my daughter believe that she was going to enjoy that class trip. She would not believe that everything was going to be OK. And when, today, I picked her up, tired, excited about all the new friends she’d made, and looking forward to the new school year, there was no point in reminding her of the earlier anxiety.

Of course, I realize that our experience this week is just a normal life transition. But what if your kid is facing cancer? How do you find a way into the foreign country of your child’s mind when it involves something that huge? I’m two years post treatment, and my daughter still barely mentions the 18 months that I was sick. Only occasionally, she’ll burst out with a comment like, “That was a terrible year. You could have died!” Then, she’ll clam up just as suddenly.

And that’s a kid who’s only dealing with a parent’s cancer, not her own.

Each year, an estimated 12,000 kids under the age of 20 get diagnosed with cancer. Some studies find that most kids adjust fairly well within a year or so. Often, it’s the parents who have the most difficult time. I can completely understand that: I would rather have a metastasis tomorrow than hear that my daughter has cancer.

So, if your child has cancer, how do you communicate about the disease? How do you deal with your own fear, while trying to reassure your child? How do you gauge how your child is feeling? How to do you help your child deal with anxiety, with unpleasant procedures, with icky side effects? How much information is enough? What’s too much? How do the answers to these questions change depending on the child’s age? How do you maintain household and discipline routines with all the craziness that cancer brings to family life? What about schoolwork? Do you let it go by the wayside, or do you try to maintain academic routines as well?

Whole books have been written trying to answer these questions, but I spent some time looking for on-line resources for parents who are trying to help a child who has cancer.

Here are some of the best resources I found:

  • The American Cancer Society has an overview of many of these issues.
  • The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) has developed a stuffed cancer buddy called “Cellie” and a whole kit, complete with “cancer coping cards” and a backpack to hold everything. Cellie helps kids deal with everything from a fear of needles to anxiety about being away from a parent. You can order Cellie even if your child isn’t a CHOP patient.
  • The Stanford Cancer Institute has outlines detailing what kids at different ages understand, and how best to comfort children at different stages of development.
  • The American Society of Clinical Oncology offers a primer on how to talk to kids about their cancer, with different tips for toddlers, pre-schoolers, elementary school kids and teenagers.
  • The National Cancer Institute has prepared an on-line handbook for parents of children with cancer.
  • A social worker blog features this excellent list of books that help kids deal with cancer.  Yale Cancer Center also offers a comprehensive booklist.
  • The American Childhood Cancer Organization offers free books for families of children with cancer.

Have you found other resources that have helped you cope with your child’s cancer? Let us know about them here.

 

 

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