Helping Your Child Cope with Cancer Treatment

One month before turning 17 I was diagnosed with leukemia. One minute I was acting in my school play, looking at colleges I might want to attend, and planning for the upcoming semi-formal. And quite literally the next minute, I was a cancer patient. It’s astounding how drastically life can change when a doctor utters a few words to you in a dimly lit hospital room one grey December day. All of my plans – not just for the year, but for the rest of my life – came to a screeching halt. Would I recover? When? How will my schoolwork suffer? Will I still see my friends? Will my crush at school ever like me? Will I lose my hair? Will treatment hurt? Will I have scars?

The questions raced through my head too quickly to even articulate while the doctor explained what leukemia was (cancer of the white blood cells), and how they would treat it (months of high-dose chemotherapy, antibodies, and blood and platelet transfusions).

The next weeks moved quickly as my medical team urgently got me started on chemotherapy. I was in ICU at first, and then transferred to the regular pediatric oncology floor, at which point my hair started to slowly appear more and more on my pillow. For a teenage girl, this aspect of treatment was nearly unbearable.

I was lucky. So very lucky. My type of leukemia was rare, but doctors had found a protocol of drugs that had resulted in a high cure rate. The treatment process would be very rough, but I would survive. I was also lucky because, while the doctors focused on making my body well again, a whole other team at the hospital was concerned with my emotional well-being. As a result of all of their efforts, I not only survived cancer, but was able to process it and emerge a stronger person as a result of it.

Parents of children undergoing cancer treatment, or treatment for any serious illness, have the monumental task of caring for both the physical and mental well-being of their little ones. The effort can be daunting. But while the doctors focus on the medical part of the process, it is important for parents to know what they can do to ensure that the emotional, mental, and developmental side of treatment progress as well.

I spoke with an information specialist from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, as well as the chief of Child Life and Arts Therapy at a prominent children’s hospital to get a better understanding of what parents can do. Here’s what I learned: