How to support children who have cancer, and tips and advice to help them live better

This guide looks at some of the things you can do to help make things better for a child with cancer, including tips and advice from the Live Better With cancer community – people who have been through a similar experience.

There are lots of ways you can help to make life a little bit easier, whether it’s by helping the child to deal with their treatment, making their time in hospital more comfortable, or talking to them about how they are feeling.

In this guide:

Dealing with treatment  | Spending time in hospital  | Keeping entertained | Dealing with emotions

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Dealing with treatment

Some types of cancer are specific to children, teenagers or young adults. However, the treatment for the cancer is often the same as the treatment that is given to adults. This means that a child may have to deal with surgery, or the effects of treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Cancer treatments can have a range of different side effects, such as pain, sickness, hot flashes, or a sore mouth. A child may also be frightened when the time comes to have their treatment. However, there are a number of things you can do to help.

Feeling sick

If a child is suffering from nausea or sickness because of chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment, it can be difficult to encourage them to eat.

It can help to keep some snacks with you, such as boiled sweets or their favourite treat, for whenever they do feel like eating. The Live Better With community recommend using queasy pops, handy lollipops which are made from natural ingredients and can help to calm the stomach as well as getting rid of any nasty tastes.

The child’s medical team may be able to prescribe anti-sickness medication. There are also lots of other ways to help reduce sickness, such as ginger biscuits and anti-nausea wristbands.

“Ginger for nausea – you can try biscuits, sweets, tea, chews or even raw!” Jean, Live Better With community member.

Soothing a sore mouth

Treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can also lead to soreness, swelling or ulcers in the mouth (mucositis). There are lots of products which can help to soothe a sore mouth, from mouthwashes to specially designed toothbrushes – such as Dr Barman’s Superbrush for Kids, which cleans all three surfaces of the tooth at the same time.

Dealing with hot flashes

Some cancer treatments can cause night sweats or hot flashes. The effects can be reduced by giving the child loose, breathable nightwear made from a natural material, like cotton or bamboo.

Cooling gel pillows can also be useful – just pop them in the fridge and then place them inside the child’s   pillowcase to help soothe them.

You can read our Guide to Being Comfortable here.

Spending time in hospital

Being treated for cancer can be frightening and bewildering for a child. Staying in hospital can interrupt their normal routine, and they may feel anxious being surrounded by different people, strange lights and noises, and hospital equipment.

It can be difficult for younger children to understand what is happening around them. Sometimes children worry that when you leave the hospital you are not going to come back. It’s important to reassure them that you will see them again soon.

Home comforts

Bringing some special items from home, such as the child’s own slippers and dressing gown, some photos, and a favourite teddy or special blanket, can offer comfort and help the child to relax. Check with the child’s medical team about what you are allowed to bring in. They will be keen to help them feel as settled as possible.

Getting a good night’s sleep

Getting to sleep in hospital can be a challenge at the best of times. For a child, it can be even more difficult. The Live Better With Community recommend using a sleep mask and soft ear plugs, to screen out noise and lights and help the child to settle.

To offer extra comfort in the night, and to help relieve any aches and pains, many people recommend using a microwaveable soft toy, such as a Cozy Hottie, a cute cuddly animal which contains beads scented with lavender oil to help the little one relax and get off to sleep.

“Very soft cuddly bear loved by his little owner. Stayed warm until he was fast asleep. Good value and good quality.” Live Better With community member

Older children or teenagers might benefit from a microwaveable heat bag with lavender seeds, which can help to soothe any pain or discomfort.

Sleep balms and sprays containing essential oils can also help children to relax and settle for the night – the Live Better With community recommend Badger Night-Night balm which has lavender and chamomile, to help them to drift off more naturally.

You can view the Live Better With Guide to Sleeping here.

Keeping entertained

Having treatment for cancer often means that a child has to spend lots of time in bed resting, or waiting around during treatment. This can lead to a lot of spare hours to fill.

A tablet or iPad can be a good way to help keep them occupied. Children can listen to music, watch movies or surf the internet. A beany tablet cushion will help to keep their device in place, allowing them to rest and relax. If you need to keep the noise down, try using some fun headphones such as My Doodle On-Ear headphones from Cancer Research UK, which are specially designed for kids and have soft earcups, an adjustable headband and are volumed-limited to protect children’s hearing.

You should also make sure the child has a good stock of books, magazines, activities and games to help keep them busy. Children may enjoy doing something creative and relaxing, such as doing a puzzle or colouring. There are some specially designed colouring books, such as the Mindfulness Colouring Book for Children.

“Wonderful for relaxing the children, and the pages are thick enough so pens don’t bleed through.” Live Better With community member

Having cancer often brings a lot of disruption to a child’s normal routine, activities and social life. If the child is allowed visitors, arrange for friends and family to come and see them regularly. For teenagers, who love technology, video links and social media can be a good way to keep in touch.

Dealing with emotions

When a child has cancer, it is a very difficult time for the child and their loved ones. The situation is likely to be worrying, stressful and exhausting for everyone.

A child with cancer might experience a range of different feelings. Younger children might feel frightened and bewildered, while older children might feel fear, disbelief or anger. They may also worry about how the cancer might affect their appearance, or their relationships with their friends.

Explaining things to a child with cancer

The best way to help a child with cancer, and their siblings, is to be open with them, and talk to them in a way that’s appropriate for their age.

There are lots of books which are specially designed to help you explain cancer to a child, including a range of storybooks and picture books, which cover things like staying in hospital, chemotherapy, and hair loss.

Some books are designed to help the child and their family and friends to learn about cancer together, such as Chemo to the Rescue which deals with leukemia and its treatment.

You can view a range of children’s books designed to help you talk about cancer here.

Older children might find it helpful to keep a journal, in which they can write down how they are feeling. This can also be a useful way for them to share their feelings with someone else.

Helping a child to relax

Having treatment for cancer can be very disruptive and worrying for a child. Some simple meditations and mindfulness techniques can help. Try Enchanted Meditation for Kids, a CD with short, calming meditation exercises, or Sitting still like a frog, which contains mindfulness exercises for children and their parents.

“Highly recommended to any parent with a child with cancer, within the first two days there was a vast improvement in my son’s sleeping patterns. Amazing book.”  Live Better With community member

Other family members

When a child goes through cancer, it can also be very hard on the people around them, including siblings, friends and family members. At times it may feel overwhelming. It’s important to seek support and to talk about these feelings with a friend or family member, or a counsellor. Local and online support groups can also be very helpful.

You can view our complete Guide for Carers here

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Share your stories and tips

Have you had to care for a child with cancer? What made life better for you? We’d love to hear about your tips, as they could help other people like you. Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.

Find more Live Better With Guides to coping with cancer symptoms and side effects here.