Pediatric HealthSource: Coping with a Cancer Diagnosis

Tammi Young-Saleme
Ph.D.
Columbus Parent

Q:My child was just diagnosed with cancer. How can we navigate this as a family?

A: A child’s cancer diagnosis can be especially frightening. Parents have to juggle the uncertainty of the diagnosis with other life demands including siblings, school and the complications of an ongoing pandemic (social distancing, being immunocompromised), just to name a few. As your family adjusts to “the new normal,” it can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. There is no right or wrong here: Emotions can run the gamut from disbelief to anger to sadness to guilt to anxiety.

As you get organized soon after diagnosis, getting to know your child’s medical team (and what it is that they do) is paramount. The team is there not only to take care of your child, but also to be a support for your entire family. Bringing a notebook to appointments for notetaking as well as keeping track of questions that come up in between appointments is extremely helpful during treatment. Being informed and doing research on reliable and reputable sources can aid in taking control of decisions, and that empowerment is a good antidote to feeling lost.

Employing self-care measures like exercise, meditation, music or journaling can strengthen weary and worried parents, as can seeking external support. Talking to social workers, nurses, doctors, clergy, psychologists and parents of other childhood cancer patients can help your entire family feel more equipped to handle whatever comes.

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health.

For more pediatric health news parents can use, visit our blog: 700childrens.nationwidechildrens.org.

Tammi Young-Saleme, Ph.D., is the director of Psychosocial Services and Program Development at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

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Offer Help

If a friend of the family is diagnosed with cancer, find ways to be helpful.

  • Age-appropriate response – The reaction of the patient will differ depending on their age. Young children may not understand what is happening or why it is serious. Older kids and teens might be worried about how the diagnosis will disrupt their lives.
  • Offer support – Ask the parents directly if there’s anything you can do, whether it’s sitting and listening, cooking some meals or transporting siblings to activities. They may not want help, and that’s OK; knowing you’re there is sometimes good enough.
  • Treat them the same – A cancer diagnosis changes health status and routine, but most other things stay the same. Have the same conversations about interests, hobbies and other topics you would have before.
Tammi Young-Saleme, Ph.D.