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How to help your child if a classmate has cancer

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 25, 2013 10:32 AM

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It's hard to know what to say to children when someone they know has cancer--and it's even harder to know what to say when that someone is a friend or classmate.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.  In honor of that, I asked Kendal Temple, an oncology community outreach nurse from the Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center who regularly talks to children who have classmates with cancer, what advice she would give to parents.

“Learning that a friend or classmate has cancer can be a frightening and confusing experience for children,” she said. “Parents have an important role to play in providing information, allaying fears, and helping their children not just navigate the friendship but learn how to comfort, support and assist a friend in need.” 

It’s really important that parents help their child understand that despite the difficult physical changes they may see in their friend, such as hair loss and weight loss, the friends is still the same person—and should be treated that way.

Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Try to explain cancer in a way that children will understand. Tell young children that certain cells in their friend’s body are not working right and that doctors use special medicine called chemotherapy to make the cancer cells go away. Older children can understand that cancer occurs when certain cells multiply and divide very quickly—crowding out healthy cells, making it hard for the body to work the way it should.
  • Answer the difficult questions children ask (like: Will my friend die? Will the cancer come back?) honestly without being alarmist. Some children die of cancer, and sometimes it comes back. But we have lots of good treatments. Although 83 percent of children under age 20 with cancer now survive, it’s best to stay away from specific predictions because each individual cancer case is different.
  • Children might say, “But Uncle Joe died of cancer.” Let them know that childhood cancer is very different from adult cancer.
  • Young children may need reassurance that cancer isn’t contagious, and that their friend didn’t get cancer because she did anything bad.
  •  Children of all ages may need reassurance that childhood cancer is very rare.
  •  Help your child understand the side effects of cancer treatment. In addition to causing hair loss, chemotherapy often causes nausea and fatigue. It also lowers the body’s resistance to infection, so things like hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes (with the inside of your elbow, not your hands) and not sharing drinks or snacks is more important than ever. Your child’s classmate may also spend time in the hospital or at home—this is normal.
  • Reach out to the teacher or family friend coordinating assistance for the family and see what you and your child might do to help. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a card.

It’s important to keep the lines of communication open, says Temple. “Encourage your child to come to you or another appropriate adult with questions. Often the things children come up with in their heads are much scarier than what’s really going on.”

To learn more about childhood cancer, what we are doing about it and how to talk to children about it, visit the Childhood Cancer Awareness Month page of the Dana Farber/Boston Children's site.


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This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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