Helping Children Understand Cancer

Catherine, the Princess of Wales has announced she is in the early stages of treatment after a cancer diagnosis. News like this can be scary and your children may have questions about what’s going on and why. Rebecca Smith, author of the book SuperDaisy, the empowering story of a little girl undergoing treatment for cancer, has shared her guidance on helping children understand cancer.

News that a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer is devastating, whatever your age. The news that a parent has cancer requires expert support. Below is a list of organisations that offer advice to parents facing this difficult conversation.

The prevalence of cancer means that many children know someone who is affected. The news often brings with it feelings of fear and powerlessness. Even as adults, these feelings are difficult to understand, manage and express. As a child, navigating these feelings – particularly when those who you ordinarily turn to for comfort are unwell or upset – can feel overwhelming and disorientating. This can have a ripple effect in schools and families.

It was that sense of powerlessness that led me to write SuperDaisy when my Goddaughter was diagnosed with cancer at age 2. It began as a book to support her and children who, like Daisy, face the injustice of childhood cancer. But in visiting schools to share SuperDaisy, I have learnt how many children need support talking about cancer.

At one school visit, I spoke with 50 children, aged 7-10. At the end, the children lined up and said thank you. Three children into the line, a boy stopped and said “My cousin had cancer” – from that point on, almost every child in the queue told me of someone they knew. Back in class, the teacher picked up the conversation. All but two of the children had been touched by cancer. “I had no idea,” she said.

I have now come to expect that, by the age of 8, most children have known of someone with cancer – a friend, a family member, a pet, a neighbour.

Children like to tell grown-ups things but they can be frightened to ask questions, particularly if they are concerned that the question might be a sensitive one. When is the right time to ask Dad why Granny is losing her hair? When is the right time to ask Mum if cancer is contagious? But just because children do not ask a question it does not mean that they do not have a question. If most 8-year-old children have some connection with a person with cancer, most 8-year-old children will have questions about cancer without necessarily knowing how or when to ask them.

So how can we help children to talk about cancer and to ask the questions that they have? Providing space in your day when children can share their questions or concerns is vitally important.  This might be in the car, on a walk or whilst playing a board game. It is important to create comfortable opportunities for conversations to gently develop and to invite children to share their concerns.  Even if we cannot offer all the answers, we can offer understanding and comfort and a sense that they are not alone.

Stories can provide a framework for difficult conversations and topics. Even in teenage years, the reading of a story provides a shared experience and an intimacy that can open the door to conversation with your child.

There are books, like SuperDaisy, that are designed to support conversations about cancer. But it needn’t be a book about illness. Many narratives provide opportunities to open questions and the ability to reference a character in a book takes the pressure off the child. Take Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “Gosh, Charlie is having a tough time with all his grandparents to look after. Grandparents do need looking after, don’t they? I’m sorry that Grandad’s ill…” Children sometimes need to be indirectly invited to ask the most difficult question or to share a scary emotion.

Rebecca Smith, author of SuperDaisy

Charities not only provide support for families facing the injustice of cancer, but they also provide an opportunity to empower those impacted by a diagnosis with the opportunity to help. This can be a comfort to children, giving them agency and a sense that they can make a practical difference. Thinking up a fundraising idea and raising money for charity can provide a positive focus for children. It can also give them a manageable framework for conversations with friends about what they are experiencing.

If raising money feels too tricky there are other options. The Little Princess Trust provides wigs for children who lose their hair and funds research into childhood cancer treatment. Often known as the playground’s favourite charity, it is popular amongst children, perhaps because it gives children agency by allowing them to help with a currency that they have in their possession – their hair. Any child can grow, cut, and donate their hair and in doing so feel empowered to help. The Princess of Wales kindly donated her hair in 2018.

Organisations offering support for families facing cancer:

Ruth Strauss Foundation – A charity dedicated to supporting families affected by cancer, providing practical and emotional assistance during challenging times.

The Osborne Trust – Offering financial assistance and practical support to families impacted by cancer, ensuring they receive the help they need.

Maggie’s – Providing free practical, emotional, and social support to people with cancer and their loved ones, helping them navigate their cancer journey with confidence.

Macmillan Cancer Support: Offering a wide range of services and resources for people affected by cancer, including financial advice, emotional support, and practical guidance.

These organisations play a crucial role in offering support and guidance to families facing cancer diagnoses, helping them cope with the challenges ahead. Whether it’s financial assistance, emotional support, or practical guidance, these resources can provide valuable assistance during difficult times.

To read more helpful articles like this browse the Talking Points section of our website.

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