World Cancer Day: How to cope with your child’s cancer diagnosis

cancer, parenting

A cancer diagnosis is generally shocking in children. (Source: Getty Images)

By Dr Vikas Dua

World Cancer Day: Learning that one's child has cancer usually makes parents feel like their life has come to an end. Everything in their life suddenly become meaningless. Their initial thoughts may be "How could this have happened to my child?" and "How will we get through this?"

A cancer diagnosis is generally shocking in children. However, prognosis of childhood cancer continues to improve with advances in the field of oncology, and the chance of being cured continues to increase.

The fear of losing your previously healthy child, your normal daily routine, the impact of the diagnosis on other family members, and the financial impact of the diagnosis can lead to grief. The child with cancer, the parents, siblings, and other family members can experience a variable degree of grief. Grief is usually divided into five stages.

Denial is a stage where people try to believe that the cancer diagnosis is not correct. It is a protective emotion when a life event is too overwhelming to deal with all at once. This is normal and does not pose a problem unless it stands in the way of getting the child needed medical care.

Anger is a stage in which one accepts the diagnosis while being very upset and angry about why it has happened in his or her family. Talking with family and friends, other parents who have a child with cancer, and the hospital staff proves beneficial in such situation. The child needs to be able to express his or her anger by therapeutic play, drawing pictures of how they feel talking to other children, or writing in a journal.

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It is normal for parents in such a situation to make bargains with themselves or God, hoping that this will make the cancer diagnosis go away. Looking for something that you personally could have done, which could have contributed to the cancer in your child, is all a part of bargaining. Parents promise themselves or God that they will not do something they previously did (such as fighting or arguing with family members), or will start doing something they have not done (such as going to religious places regularly), in exchange for their child's cancer recovery. It is important to know that there is nothing that you or your child did which led to the cancer. It is no one's fault.

Depression or sadness at this point is normal. physical changes may also be seen, such as trouble sleeping, or excessive sleeping, difficulty with concentrating, changes in appetite, or feeling a constant fear that someone else in the family will be diagnosed with cancer. Talking with a healthcare professional, such as a social worker or counsellor, or meeting with a support group helps in coping up with these feelings.

Acceptance is a stage in which one has accepted the diagnosis and has made an adjustment to child's illness. It does not imply that they will become prone to other feeling or they will never feel other emotions, but usually families find that they are better able to carry on with their lives and manage it better once they reach this stage.

Some practical things that can help in coping with the diagnosis include to know as much as possible about the disease as at times, ignorance or a lack of understanding is our worst enemy. Do not hesitate to ask questions about the disease. Parents should keep a notebook with all the medical records and information about their child's diagnosis. Write things down.

As time goes on, acceptance comes and parents start moving forward with their child's treatment and his life, even though at times it becomes difficult.

Bearing treatment of any childhood cancer can be financially challenging for a family. Health insurances are the need of the hour which may help the family to cope up with the expenses.

Continuing regular activities will help to cope and feel more in control.

Although the primary focus of the family is the child with cancer, it is important to spend time with other children and family members as well. It is healthy to live a normal life and to have fun together, even when a child in the family has cancer. Relieving stress and strengthening family relationships will help to cope better with the child's disease.

Parents will have important knowledge and skills that they have gained from their child's illness. They can help other parents and their families by sharing their experiences in a support group or any other setting.

(The writer is Additional Director and Head of Department, Paediatric Haematology Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram.)