Children often are curious and may have many questions about their illness and treatment. Your child knows and trusts you and will expect you to respond to questions. Some children will ask questions right away, while others will ask them later. Here are some ideas to help you answer some of the questions your child is likely to ask.
Children, like adults, wonder why they have cancer. They may feel strongly that their cancer was caused by something they did. A child with cancer should be told honestly that no one, not even the experts knows why a person develops cancer. Children need to be reassured that nothing they did, or didn't do, caused their disease. Children also need to know that their illness is not contagious-they did not "catch" cancer from someone else.
"Will I get well?"
Often, children know about family members or friends who have died from cancer. As a result, many children are afraid to ask if they will get well: they fear the answer will be "no." You should tell your child that cancer is a serious disease but that the medicine, X-rays, and/or operation will help to get rid of the cancer. You should also tell your child that the doctors, nurses, and family are trying their best to cure the cancer. By using this approach, you are giving your child an honest, hopeful answer. Knowing there are caring people such as doctors, nurses, counselors, and others, also may help your child feel more secure.
"What will happen to me?"
When children are first diagnosed with cancer, many new and frightening things happen to them. While the doctor's office, clinic, or hospital, they may see other children with cancer who are not feeling well, are bald, or have had amputations. A child may be too afraid to ask questions and may develop unrealistic fears about what will happen. For this reason, children should to be told in advance about their treatment and possible side effects that may occur. They should know what would be done to help if side effects occur. Children also should know that there are many types of cancer and that what happens to another child will not necessarily happen to them, even if they have the same type of cancer or the same type of treatment.
Children should know about their treatment schedule. They also should be told about any changes in their schedule or in the type of treatment they receive. Having your child keep a calendar that shots the days for doctor's visits, treatments, or special tests will help prepare for these visits.
"Why must I take medicines when I feel okay?"
Most of us link taking medicine to feeling sick. It's confusing to children to take medicines when they feel well. Answers to this question may relate back to the original explanation of the cancer. For example, children could be told that even though they are feeling well and have no signs of disease, the "bad-guy cells" are hiding. They must take medicine for a while longer to help find the bad guys and stop them from coming back.
"What should I tell the kids at school?"
Children with cancer are concerned about how friends and schoolmates will react. This is especially true when they have missed a lot of school or return with obvious physical changes such as weight loss, weight gain, or hair loss. Encourage your child to keep in touch with close friends and classmates. Friends often want to know what happens when a child is away from school. Encourage your child to talk honestly about the disease and the kind of treatment being given. Suggest that your child reassure friends that they cannot "catch" cancer from anyone. You or one of the teachers at school also may be able to talk to other students.
Try to help your child understand that not all people, including some adults, know about cancer. People who don't understand cancer often act differently or may give your child incorrect information.
Such talks with others may cause your child to have doubts and fear despite all your reassurance. Ask your child about conversations with others so that you can correct any misunderstandings.
"Will I be able to do the things I did before I got cancer?"
The answer to this question is individual and depends on the child's type of cancer and treatment. Most likely, your child will need some restrictions at different times during treatment. Tell your child why the doctors or nurses think it's best to restrict certain activities and how long this will last. Help your child substitute one kind of activity for another. For example, you could suggest that friends come over to paint, have a snack, or play video games if the doctor feels that your child should not ride a bike because the chance of injury is high.
Like adults, children with cancer feel uncertain, anxious, and afraid at times. But, unlike many adults, children often are not able to talk about their feelings. As a parent, you know how your child usually behaves, so you will probably be the first to notice any differences. Play is a way for a child to express and reduce fears and anxieties, and you should encourage it. Drawing pictures and playing with puppets, dolls, and even medical supplies are ways children may show that they need more reassurance and love.
Some children find it hard to express their feelings. These children may have nightmares or eating or behavioral difficulties. They also may not do as well in school. Some children resume behaviors that they had outgrown, such as bedwetting or thumb sucking
Remember that through the years, you as a parent already have developed a "sixth sense" about your child. You do not need to look for problems in the way your child behaves. If problems exist, they will be oblivious to you.