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Talking to children about cancer

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Children who have learnt that they have cancer will be confused and frightened, and need a lot of support to help them cope. The child’s family will be providing the main support, but you can help by including the child in conversations about their disease in a way that helps to build their trust and confidence in you and your other health care colleagues, and reduces their fears. By doing this, you will also provide a good role model for families.

Reinforce the messages that they haven’t done anything wrong that has caused them to get cancer, and that they can’t pass the disease on to their siblings or friends. (See Living with children's cancer.)

Explain clearly what their cancer is, what the tests and treatment will involve, and what will happen to their bodies (such as hair loss) and their feelings (such as reduced energy, feeling sad). Explain how long these effects will last, and reassure them that they will get back to normal.

Familiarise the child with any equipment that will be used in their tests and treatment, and show them where they will be sleeping, where their parents and siblings will be, where they can play and so on.

Encourage the child to ask questions and express any fears. Answer their questions simply and honestly. Reassure them that they can keep in touch with their family and friends during their treatment. Use the same principles to speak to the siblings of children with cancer.

How a child understands cancer has useful information on how children of different ages understand and cope with cancer. Other useful resources are in Talking to families about children’s cancer.

published: Sunday, 23 August, 2015