Advice for kids who have a friend with cancer

If your child’s friend is diagnosed with cancer, you might be wondering how this could impact your child and what steps you can take to help them.

The Cancer Council says, “Children who are told about the illness of someone important to them tend to cope better than children who are kept in the dark … Talking to your children about cancer gives them the chance to tell you how they feel and lets them know it is okay to ask questions.” The Cancer Council says talking to your child about what is going on will actually make them feel more secure and may even build your child’s resilience.

Cancer Australia advises: “It can be confusing for your child if a special friend suddenly disappears from their life, and they might imagine that their friend has died. They probably won’t see each other as often, and they may not interact in the same way, but both children will benefit from social interaction.” Cancer Australia also advises that friendships can be maintained through face-to-face visits in the hospital, a phone chat or a video call over the internet with apps like Skype or WhatsApp. It suggests taking a fun and proactive approach to keeping in touch and offers ideas like, “make a get-well card, write a letter, make a decoration for their hospital room or design a board game”.

Another tip from Cancer Australia is, “Explain that things will change for the child who has cancer. They may not be able to run around as much and might have quite a bit of time off school while they are having treatment.” However, Cancer Australia also advises trying to focus on the things in the friendship that will stay the same. For example, the child with cancer can still laugh at jokes, pull silly faces, play video games or make craft.

Cancer Council says if you have a younger child who has a friend that has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s a good idea to keep explanations as simple as possible. The Cancer Council suggests using picture books, toys or dolls when explaining cancer to help them understand.

Redkite has a book club to help families and children understand and address the complex issues that arise with cancer. Going to the Hospital by Anne Civardi “is about a boy who goes into the hospital for a one night stay after an ear operation. The pictures and words are bright, cheery and comforting to young readers. It is a good book to show a very young child what going to the hospital will be like and that it isn’t as scary as it might seem.”

Redkite also recommends I Feel Frightened, I’m Worried and I Feel Sad written by Brian Moses. These books look at the emotions of being frightened, worried and sad, in a light-hearted but reassuring way. These books also suggest strategies for dealing with these feelings and have a section at the end for parents with age-appropriate conversation starters.

The Huge Bag of Worries addresses feelings such as worry and fear in a generalised sense. “Wherever Jenny goes, her worries follow her – in a big blue bag. They are there when she goes swimming, when she is watching TV, and even when she is in the bathroom. Jenny decides they will have to go. The message of the book is clear – find someone who will listen and talk about your worries.” You can also access a reading of this book via YouTube.

Cancer Council says from the age of three children have a basic understanding of illness. “Younger children may believe that they caused the illness (e.g. by being naughty or thinking bad thoughts); this is called magical thinking. They may also think cancer is contagious. It is natural for young children to be egocentric and think everything is related to them – Did I cause it? Can I catch it? Who will look after me?”

Cancer Council says, “During the primary school years, children become ready for basic information about cancer cells. Some children may have heard about cancer, but may not know how it starts. They could fill gaps in their knowledge with simple cause-and-effect logic – for example, they sometimes feel that their bad behaviour might have caused the disease. They may understand that people, including parents, can die.”

They suggest starting a conversation with your child to reassure them that they haven’t done anything wrong, and also remind them that cancer is not contagious.

The Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation has also created What is Cancer? – a fun and educational video you could show your child. The video introduces concepts such as healthy versus unhealthy cells, and cancer treatment in a very accessible way.

The American Cancer Society recommends the Medikidz Book Series. “This award-winning graphic-novel series explains complex cancer topics to teens and tweens in a visually pleasing and accessible way.” This comic-book is available in both English and Spanish too.

We hope these resources have been helpful. If we’ve missed something, please let us know. We want to help you find what you’re looking for.

Cancer Advisor has a range of resources with practical tips, but we’re always looking for more content. Leave a comment below, share your own story or recommend a resource.

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