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When your child has a friend with cancer

If your child’s friend is diagnosed with cancer, you might be wondering how this could impact your child.

If your child’s friend is diagnosed with cancer, you might be wondering how this could impact your child. Cancer can be big and scary, and it will change the friendship your child and their friend have. Here are some suggestions on how you can approach helping your child understand their friend’s diagnosis.

For kids of all ages

In general, children who are told about the illness of someone important to them tend to cope better than children who are kept in the dark. Their special friend might suddenly disappear from their life, so talking to your child about cancer gives them the chance to tell you how they feel and lets them know it is okay to ask questions.

Their friend’s cancer treatment will probably mean they won’t see each other as often and how they play together will also change. Explain to your child their friend might not be able to run around like they used to, and will have time away from school for their treatment, but that there will still be things in the friendship that will stay the same. 

Remember that both children will benefit from social interaction, so help maintain their friendship through face-to-face visits in the hospital, a phone chat or a video call over the internet with apps like Skype or WhatsApp. You could also suggest they keep in touch with their friend by making a get-well card, a decoration for their hospital room or design a board game they can play together.

Explain to your child their friend might not be able to run around like they used to, and will have time away from school for their treatment, but that there will still be things in the friendship that will stay the same

For kids aged 3-6

From the age of three, children have a basic understanding of illness, so it’s best to keep explanations as simple as possible. It is natural for young children to be egocentric and think everything is related to them – Did I cause it? Can I catch it? Who will look after me? Your child might think that their friend’s cancer is contagious or that they caused the illness (e.g. by being naughty or thinking bad thoughts). Redkite has a book club to help children understand cancer, what their friend is going through, and that is it nobody’s fault.

Going to the Hospital by Anne Civardi “is about a boy who goes into the hospital for a one night stay after an ear operation. The pictures and words are bright, cheery and comforting to young readers. It is a good book to show a very young child what going to the hospital will be like and that it isn’t as scary as it might seem.”

We also recommend I Feel Frightened, I’m Worried and I Feel Sad written by Brian Moses. These books look at the emotions of being frightened, worried and sad, in a light-hearted but reassuring way. These books also suggest strategies for dealing with these feelings and have a section at the end for parents with age-appropriate conversation starters.
The Huge Bag of Worries addresses feelings such as worry and fear in a generalised sense. “Wherever Jenny goes, her worries follow her – in a big blue bag. They are there when she goes swimming when she is watching TV, and even when she is in the bathroom. Jenny decides they will have to go. The message of the book is clear – find someone who will listen and talk about your worries.”

It’s important to reassure your child they haven’t done anything wrong, and remind them that cancer is not contagious.

For kids aged 6-12

If your child is in primary school they may have heard about cancer, but not understand exactly what it is or what causes it. They may also understand that people, including parents, can die and that people die from cancer. This may lead them to think their friend might die. They are probably ready to have the gaps in their knowledge filled, especially now they have a friend with cancer. It’s important to reassure your child they haven’t done anything wrong, and remind them that cancer is not contagious. The Redkite Book Club has age-appropriate books which you can read together to start the conversation.

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