When Your Child Gets Cancer

Initially it’s a shock. It’s very scary. It’s hard to believe that your child is going through something so hard all of a sudden — from a playground to a hospital bed." Norma Zavalza, Daughter had Ewing's Sarcoma
Jackie Garcia Living With Cancer Jackie Garcia
Norma Zavalza can still remember how stunned she felt the day her daughter, Jackie Garcia — who was only 10 when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma — pulled her aside to ask her a question.

“She asked me, ‘Mom, am I going to die?’” said Zavalza. “I had an uncle who passed away who had multiple myeloma and she wondered if the same thing would happen to her. I said, ‘No Jackie. This is different. Everybody is different.’”

It has been years since mother and daughter had that difficult conversation. And with cancer behind them, the family is relieved — and much happier — but Jackie sometimes still deals with tough emotions.

“I just think about how hard it was thinking that I was going to die,” said Jackie, now 14. “I’m happier now, but I still don’t like to think about it.”
 

Educational, social and psychological guidance

The emotions faced by Jackie and her family are some of the most challenging aspects of pediatric cancer. Coping with cancer that strikes children, teens and young adults presents a unique set of stresses and challenges.
 
Although around 80 percent of children diagnosed with cancer move on to become cancer-free for at least five years, other issues may linger after experiencing cancer such as fear of cancer returning, stress, sadness and what the American Cancer Society calls the “late effects” of cancer treatment.
 
Beyond helping these young patients understand treatments and procedures, caregivers and families have to manage practical things like school, treatment-related health issues and the difficulty that cancer can pose to the entire family.
 
The special services City of Hope offers pediatric patients and their families — and young relatives of adult patients — include educational, social and psychological guidance that are crucial at this stage of life. At the heart of those services is the comprehensive care, compassion and understanding that are hallmarks of our approach.
 

Talking to children about a cancer diagnosis

It can be daunting to talk with children about cancer when it has struck them — or even a loved one or friends. But it is important to keep them aware of what’s going on, and informed about what’s involved during the three stages of cancer treatment: diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment.  Helping them understand what’s happening is always preferable to keeping them in the dark.

What are some proven tips on how to talk to children about cancer?
  • Be prepared with the message you want to give the child.
  • Use language appropriate for the age of the child.
  • Let children know of any changes in their schedule or in your schedule.
  • Don’t be afraid to say the word “cancer” as well as the specific type of cancer they or the patient has.
  • Ask children if they have any questions, and be honest with your answers. If you are uncertain, let children know that you will give them an answer when you find it out.
 

Child Life Services

City of Hope child life specialists are master’s certified professionals that bring unique guidance about cancer treatment for pediatric patients. They provide services for young patients (from infants to young adults), as well as their siblings, and offer comfort and perspective to well children between the ages of 4 to 17 who are affected by the illness of an adult patient.
 
Our child life specialists work to restore a sense of normalcy to children’s lives by using:
  • Age-appropriate education about illness, procedures, treatments and the hospital environment
  • Supportive presence during medical events or invasive procedures
  • Therapeutic activities that encourage expressing feelings
  • End-of-life coping skills and memory building
 

School Program

School is a central part of life for children, teens and young adults — a bedrock of their social development and identity. Our School Program helps patients who are in school (from preschool to college and vocational education levels) carry on with their normal lives by helping with socialization and academic progress during treatment and recovery. After treatment, the program is there to help ease them back into school again.
 
The School Program’s services include:
  • Hospital tutoring
  • Home instruction
  • School re-entry
  • Student and parent advocacy
  • Special learning accommodations
  • Neuropsychological testing
  • Community resources and referrals
 

Pediatric Psychology and Neuropsychology

Illness-related distress during treatment can be demanding for pediatric patients. Our Pediatric Psychology unit provides services to work through those issues, including:
  • Adjusting to illness
  • Psychological stability during treatment
  • Behavior challenges impacting compliance with treatment, medication or procedures
  • Stress and coping
  • Body image
  • Adolescence issues and concerns

Some patients may experience cognitive, thinking or learning difficulties. Our neuropsychological testing services help pediatric patients experiencing trouble with memory, attention and concentration, or processing information. This specialized testing offers young patients, on or off treatment, the support they need while transitioning back to school and family life.

If you or your loved can benefit from this specialized care ask your physician about a referral and come meet with one of our pediatric psychologists.