When a child has cancer

As a parent, the news that your child has cancer can feel devastating. Family, friends and school colleagues will be affected too. 

This page has information for parents, family, friends and schools/groups. You'll find useful links to organisations which can help - including Maggie’s.

Feelings when a child has cancer

When a child is diagnosed with cancer, it can feel overwhelming.

If it is your child who is unwell, be prepared for a mix of emotions. Everything may feel in turmoil just when you're being given lots of facts and information.

It may feel, initially, that it's is too much to cope with – and you may find you feel you can’t take in what it happening. The reactions you’re feeling are natural, and the initial impact will pass.  

The hospital specialists looking after your child understand the intense emotions you’re experiencing. They'll guide you through what is happening. There's help and support available – from the hospital, social workers, counsellors and your GP.  Other experts will be available, as and when needed.  

Family and friends may experience similar levels of shock, and it can often be a time of pulling together. 

Relationships can sometimes be strained as family and friends react in different ways.

The child with cancer may be finding everything very hard, depending on their age and understanding, and the child’s siblings and friends will also need support.

Coping with stress

Trying to cope with the stress of having a child with cancer takes its emotional toll.

 Stress can present in many ways. You may find it difficult to eat, sleep or concentrate. Finding ways to work through the stress, so you can focus on your child, can help:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be informed about your child’s cancer.
  • Be aware of the risks of the internet – check your information is from reliable sources. 
  • Explain the situation you’re facing to family, friends, school and work. If you don’t feel able to do this yourself, delegate the task.  
  • Try and get into you and your child’s new routine – which will be easier once your child has a treatment plan. This may include accepting support of others, to help your other children to feel safe and supported. 
  • Family and friends often wish to rally round and this can be useful, but they may need guidance on specifics.
  • Stress management strategies – such as relaxation, breathing exercises, yoga etc.

Looking after yourself

  • Try to eat regularly, rest, and exercise, as you’re important too.
  • It can be easy to feel guilty for taking time out to look after yourself. However, caring for your own needs too, can increase your resilience and help you to support your child.
  • Being able to talk about how you feel – including expressing your fears, as well as hopes. This may be through a counsellor, friends, your child’s healthcare team – someone you feel comfortable with and trust.
  • Be aware that having an ill child can impact on relationships – it can be hard to focus on each other, when you’re caring for your child.  
  • Parents, siblings and friends may also be struggling – so open and honest communication can help keep you a close unit, whilst dealing with hospital trips and childcare.

Maggie’s can help you and your family cope with the stress of having a child with cancer. 

Drop into to your local centre, and find out how you can be supported, including courses, workshops and a chance to talk one to one with someone. 

There’s also practical and emotional support and information available. Whilst we don’t provide young children with cancer with specific support, we’re here for you, your family and other children. We can also signpost you to organisations who provide support for your child.

When a friend's child has cancer

As a family member or friend of someone whose child has cancer, you may also be feeling shocked and upset. However, it’s likely you will also want to help. 

You may also be concerned about your own children, supporting them, especially if they’re close to the child with cancer.  

Your friend may be trying to cope with the worst news they’ve ever faced. Whilst they may appreciate your offers of help, they may not be able to think of how you can. Their focus and attention will be devoted to their child, understandably.

Be prepared to step in, and offer practical support. It may be help with school lifts and care after school for other siblings.  Sometimes the offer of a cooked meal, or a treat can just lift some of the immediate tension. Hospital runs, picking up medicines, walking the dog - small ways which can help the parents.  

If you have children, they may need support and have questions. If your child’s friend has cancer, they may worry they can catch it, or that their friend might die. 

Explaining simply what is going on, and that children with cancer generally do get better, can be supportive. Listen to their worries, and help them keep in touch with their friend whilst in hospital. 

Sometimes friends can feel helpless – yet, something as simple as being a listening ear can be just what a friend needs.

For teachers and group leaders

When a child has cancer, it can affect the other children, teachers and staff. The child may not be attending school as regularly, or have a changed appearance. They may need special considerations regarding medications, breaks, food needs etc.  On top of this, the child’s friends and peers may have questions and need support.  

This can be a time to help educate the children about cancer, dispel myths, and thinks of creative ways to help the children support their friend.  

Meanwhile, if you’re supporting children at college or university, you may have students who have had cancer as a child. They may have specific post-cancer treatment needs.

Further information is available on our resources for teachers and group leaders page.

Last review: Apr 2022 | Next review: Sep 2023

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