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How talk about the cancer of a child with a kid

Your child may have a friend or cousin who has been diagnosed with cancer. While children may know someone with cancer, usually it’s an adult in their life who is affected (e.g. a grandparent or teacher). It can be confusing and frightening for a child to learn that children can have cancer too.

Causes of cancer

Let the child know that childhood cancers are not lifestyle-related (e.g. caused by sun exposure or smoking), nor does a child get cancer because of naughty behaviour or a minor accident like a bump on the head. There’s nothing anyone did to cause the cancer.

It’s not contagious

Children need to feel safe around the child with cancer. Tell them that cancer can’t be passed on to other people. If the sick child is in isolation, this is to protect the child from infection, not to protect everyone else from the cancer.

Most children get better

Like adults, children may worry that cancer means their friend will die. Reassure children that although cancer is a serious, life-threatening disease, the overall survival rate for children is now more than 80%. This can vary depending on the diagnosis, but most children will survive cancer.

Expect change

Explain that things will change for the friend. They may feel too tired to play or may be away from school a lot. They may have physical changes (e.g. hair loss, wheelchair). Encourage your child to focus on what hasn’t changed – their friend’s personality and their friendship.

Visit the hospital

Take your child to visit their friend in hospital if you can. It is confusing for your child if the person with cancer disappears from their life after diagnosis. They may imagine the worst. Let them know it’s natural to wonder how to act and what to say, and that the more time they spend with their friend, the more they’ll relax.

Keep in touch

Help your child maintain the relationship with their friend. They may not see each other as often and might not interact in the same way, but there are other ways to keep in touch. For younger children, this could mean making a get well card or a decoration for the hospital room. Older children may prefer to communicate by phone, email or social media.

Encourage feelings

Let your child know that it’s okay to have lots of different emotions and that you have them too. They need to feel that they can approach you when they want to discuss what they’re going through. It’s also a good chance to discuss ways of coping with difficult emotions.

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