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Q&A: Advice on Caring for a Child With Cancer

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Caring for a child with cancer can be overwhelming. Along with daily responsibilities, parents must manage their child's treatment, deal with additional financial burdens and care for their other children.

Often, parents don't know how to cope or help their child through a diagnosis. Patricia Wells, director of family-centered care in the Children's Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson, provides tips to help parents and patients cope with a cancer diagnosis.


How do you tell your child he or she has cancer?


There is no special method for telling a child that she or he has cancer because each child and family is different. The approach depends on your child's age and developmental level. Communication styles and religious beliefs also play a part in this process.

As a health care provider, I always encourage parents to be honest and open with the child and his or her siblings about the diagnosis and to look to the health care providers for guidance. Child, adolescent and young adult specialists, psychologists, nurses and physicians are well equipped to work with families as they search for the best way to break the news to the child and siblings.

Also, it is important to communicate in a way the child understands best. Children may learn through reading books, being shown educational materials or in conversation. For example, if your child learns best by reading, consider reading a book about a child diagnosed with cancer.

Again, there's no cookie-cutter approach. Remember these factors when speaking with your child: timeliness, honesty and openness. Have the conversation in a private and comfortable setting, and ask for help if you need it.  


What resources can help me find the best hospital?

There are three common resources that help parents choose the best care center and treatment for their child:

•    Pediatrician/health care provider
•    Internet
•    Word of mouth

The Internet is a great resource. With it, parents are more knowledgeable about treatment options, clinical trials and the latest news from the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute.

One of the best ways to learn about a treatment center is from other people's experiences. Seek advice from those around you and reach out to the potential institution as well. Sometimes a phone conversation can help you decide whether this particular hospital is the best place for your child.

Being familiar with the situation, your child's pediatrician may be able to suggest a cancer hospital that treats your child's type of cancer and provide a contact.


How do I choose the right treatment?

The best way to determine the right treatment is by asking questions. In fact, the more questions you have, the better. I suggest you keep a notebook to write down your questions, then bring it to all appointments.

I always encourage parents to ask questions. No question is too simple or stupid. If you need to ask a question more than once, then ask it until you understand the answer. As health care providers, we're responsible for helping parents understand what we are saying.


How do I manage my child's pain and side effects?

Pain and symptom control is a big thing for parents. No parent wants to see his or her child in pain. It's important to tell your health care provider about any pain or symptoms that your child may experience. No side effect or symptom is unimportant. Open communication allows everyone to work together and find alternatives that may help alleviate pain and side effects.


How do I help my child cope with his or her diagnosis?

Families have told me that their lives are never the same after a diagnosis. Normally, they adjust to their new lives and the emotional, psychosocial and financial needs, which allows them to cope with the disease in a healthful way.

After surviving the cancer, it's still a process adjusting. If a patient has follow-up appointments, then the family must deal with the anxiety that the cancer may return. When there's a cough or a sharp pain, the survivor will consider that the cancer has recurred. A long period of remission does help patients readjust.

The best way is to live day by day and focus on the positive.

Related articles:
Pediatric Cancer Survivor Is Living Her Dream (Cancerwise)

Pediatric and young adult care
Profile: Caring for Patients, Caring for Families (Annual Report)



Read all blog posts about childhood cancer


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