Psychological effects of cancer on children

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Cancer is difficult enough for an adult to cope with. Adults understand the reality of what cancer imposes. They know they might not make it through. They know the road map to recovery is paved with excessive hurdles and a lot of discomfort and pain. They know their quality of life will wane in the meantime. They know their family will suffer, too, as they watch them struggle through it. So, how are children to cope with these very grown up realizations? You’ll have to look beyond oncology and into the world of psychiatry.

Getting Through It

Children who are diagnosed with cancer aren’t exempt from struggling with the same issues that adults go through when they’re battling the illness. Just because they are small and less mature doesn’t mean they don’t sense the gravity of the situation. Many parents are inclined to shield their children from the truth upon diagnosis. They will let them know they are ill, but they won’t explain the illness at length or tell them how serious cancer is. Obviously, these parents believe they are doing their children a favor. They want to spare them from the psychological side effects of this illness. They don’t want to worry them. They don’t want them to be scared. That’s all any parent can hope for their children.

Still, in some circumstances shielding them from the truth can cause more harm. If a child isn’t able to beat cancer, they’ll need to be prepared for what comes next. How can we prepare a child for death? The same way we prepare an adult — with time. We must give them the time they need to process what they are going through and come to terms with the realities of every possible outcome.

Mental Illness

Sometimes, the process of going through the battle to beat cancer brings with it emotional disturbances and upsets that lead to more severe issues, like depression and anxiety. In children, these conditions can be harder to treat because they often don’t have the vocabulary or self-awareness necessary to even explain what they are experiencing. They don’t understand what lethargy is. They can’t put into words how it feels to lack interest in their daily activities. They don’t understand why they are irritable. They aren’t prepared to verbalize what they are feeling when depression strikes. Still, it will look a whole lot like what it looks like in adults. It is often up to parents and doctors to look for signs that something is off.

Studies show that children with cancer score significantly higher on depression ratings scales than children without cancer. This might not be too surprising. Still, treatments for depression in youths often go overlooked. Palliative care is a good addition to child cancer treatment plans to assure these children are comforted when they are fearful of what side effects the treatments might bring. At some point in time, most children with cancer will also feel angry that this has happened to them. Allow them the space to vent these frustrations, even if professional therapy settings are required. Will they may be small, they are experiencing big emotions just like any adult would that require the same kind of attention and care.

Cite this page: Danielle Bosley, "Psychological effects of cancer on children," in, January 30, 2017, (accessed September 30, 2022).