Coping when your child has cancer

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Helping your child cope with tests and treatment

Children react to tests and treatment in different ways depending on their age, developmental stage (which means how they behave and what they’re able to understand) and personality. Some children may become dependent and demanding. Others may become withdrawn or take their frustrations out on their parents or caregivers.

Unexpected stress is harder to cope with than expected stress. Children will be less anxious and better able to cope if they understand what will happen during a procedure and how it will help them. When children are less anxious, the procedure will go more smoothly and quickly.

Preparing children for tests or treatment

Talking to children about tests or treatment before they happen can help them be mentally and physically prepared. Many families find it helpful to take a tour of the room where the test or treatment will be done and to meet the people who will do the procedure. Encourage your child to ask questions and try to answer them as honestly and fully as possible. When possible, tell your child the following:

  • what they will hear, see, smell, feel or even taste during the test
  • why they need to have the test or treatment
  • who will do the procedure
  • where the test or treatment will be done
  • what part of the body will be tested or treated
  • how the test or treatment is done (including any equipment that will be used or any noises they may hear)
  • each step in the procedure if there is more than one
  • what the test or procedure feels like (be as descriptive as possible)
  • how long the test or treatment may last

Managing pain during tests and treatment

Some tests or treatments for cancer may be uncomfortable or painful. Being stressed about the test can make the pain worse. There are different ways to manage your child’s pain or help them relax and stay calm during a test or treatment. The best ways to manage pain or stress will depend on the situation. Non-medicine methods are often combined with medicine to treat a child’s pain.

Non-medicine methods

Stress can make pain worse, so you can help your child just by talking about their stress or anxiety. Children often feel stressed or scared for a long time before a test or treatment. Preparing a child for a test or treatment should begin long before they actually get to the procedure room. There are resources available at the hospital to help you.

In some cases, you can manage pain with physical, psychological or complementary therapies.

Medicine methods

Sedation or anesthesia may be used to control pain or help children stay calm during tests or treatment. Sedation uses medicine to calm a child down or help them sleep. Anesthesia uses medicines to numb a certain part of the body (local anesthesia) or cause a loss of consciousness or awareness (general anesthesia).

Find out more about sedation and anesthesia.

Making decisions about methods

When deciding how to manage pain and which anesthetic or sedative (if any) to use, the healthcare team will consider:

  • the type of test (including if it is painful, how long it takes and if the child needs to be completely still)
  • any conditions the child has that may be affected by sedation or anesthesia (such as cardiovascular problems, asthma or neurological problems)
  • the child’s size
  • the child’s age and developmental level
  • the child’s personality

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