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For Kids: When Someone You Love Has Cancer

If someone you love has cancer, you probably feel sad, angry, and confused. It's OK to feel this way. Cancer is a serious disease. Your loved one is sick. He or she will need to see the doctor a lot. It can help to learn more about cancer. If you have any questions about your loved one's cancer, first ask your loved one, but you can also ask a relative, a doctor, or a nurse.

What is cancer?

Cancer is when one of your body's cells starts to divide out of control. When your body's cells do this, they make many cells. These cells can create a lump. This lump is called a tumor [TOO-mer]. Cancer can also be in the blood (such as in leukemia [loo-KEY-mee-uh]). In leukemia, the cancer cells grow out of control and push out the normal cells. This makes it hard for the healthy cells to fight infection, stop bleeding, and carry oxygen throughout your body.

Doctors and nurses are not always sure why cancer occurs. This is especially true with childhood cancers. But they do know causes of some types of cancers. For example, doctors know that smoking can cause lung cancer. But, you can't catch cancer like you can catch a cold. People can die from cancer, but every year doctors are finding new ways to help people survive cancer. It's also important to remember that you cannot cause someone to get cancer. If your mother has cancer and you were mad at her, you did not make her get cancer.

Henry's mom

Henry's mom has breast cancer. For a while, he was afraid to kiss her because he thought that he would get cancer too. Henry's mom told him that that would not happen. Henry went with his mom to her chemotherapy [KEE-mo-THER-uh-pee] appointment. Henry's mom's nurse told Henry that he would not catch cancer from his mom. This made Henry feel better. The nurse showed Henry where his mom goes when she has chemotherapy. That day, his mom had a shot. He held his mom's hand when she had it. It was like when he had to get a shot at the doctor's office.

Henry's mom doesn't have any hair on her head. The chemotherapy caused her to lose her hair. Henry's mom and the nurse told Henry that that could happen. Still, Henry was scared when his mom started losing her hair. He cried sometimes. He's getting used to it though. Henry's mom wears a scarf on her head. For her birthday, Henry and his grandmother bought his mom a pink scarf that she wears a lot.

Henry's parents are divorced. Since Henry's mom has been sick, he's been staying with his dad and his stepmother a lot. Henry misses his mom. His stepmother is nice, but she has to work and take care of Henry's half sister, Kate, who is 2. Henry's dad works too. Sometimes, Henry's uncle takes Henry to a baseball game or out for an ice cream cone. He makes Henry laugh. He likes to see his uncle, but he can't wait for his mom to feel better.


There are more than 100 different kinds of cancer. Treatment for each kind of cancer is different. Even two people who have the same type of cancer can get different kinds of treatment. Your loved one may have to go to the hospital for treatment. He or she may stay there for a while. The hospital may be far from your home, so you may not see your loved one very often. Or, your loved one may go to a clinic that is close to home. At a clinic, your loved one gets treatment and then goes home. Your loved one may have to go to the clinic a few times a week for treatment.

There are four main kinds of treatment for cancer: surgery, radiation [RAY-dee-AY-shun], chemotherapy, and biological [bi-oh-LOJ-uh-kul] therapy. Many times, people have to have more than one type of treatment to kill the cancer. For example, someone may have surgery. Then they will have radiation to kill any leftover cancer cells that the surgery did not remove.

If you are curious about your loved one's treatment, you may want to ask if you can go with him or her to a clinic visit or another appointment. Your loved one may not want you to come. Or, he or she may be happy that you want to go. If you go, you can meet your loved one's doctors and nurses. You can also ask them questions. It may be scary to go, but it will help you understand your loved one's treatment.

Surgery. Doctors use surgery to remove the tumor. If your loved one has surgery, he or she will have to stay in the hospital to recover. He or she may be there overnight, for just a few days, or longer.

Radiation. This is when a doctor aims high-energy rays at a tumor. Some people who have had radiation say that it's almost like getting an X-ray. If your loved one has radiation, he or she will have to go to the hospital or clinic to get it. He or she will probably have to go a few times a week for treatment. Radiation usually doesn't hurt when it's happening.

Chemotherapy. This is when your loved one gets strong medicine to kill cancer cells. Sometimes your loved one takes a pill. Other times, your loved one has to have a shot or get medicine through an IV. (An IV is a special tube that can go in the arm, chest, or another part of the body.) Depending on the type of chemotherapy, your loved one may have to go to the hospital or clinic to get it.

Biological therapy. This is when the doctor uses special substances to fight cancer. These substances help the immune cells fight infection and disease. Your loved one may get a shot, have an IV, or have an operation. Your loved one may have to go to the hospital or clinic for treatment.

What are side effects?

Some cancer treatments have side effects. Side effects happen when the treatment tries to kill the cancer cells and it kills healthy cells by mistake. Not everyone has side effects. Side effects depend on the type of cancer and the treatment. Side effects usually go away when treatment ends. But some side effects can stay. Common side effects include:

  • Feeling tired

  • Feeling sick to your stomach

  • Throwing up

  • Depression--feeling sad a lot of the time

  • Having a fever

  • Having a rash on your skin

  • Blood problems

  • Losing your hair

Sometimes cancer treatments can cause your loved one to lose their hair. This can look scary because we're used to seeing most people with hair. Henry was scared when he first saw his mother without hair. Hair most often grows back after treatment ends. If your loved one loses his or her hair, he or she may wear a wig or a scarf to protect the scalp. Or, your loved one may not wear anything. This may make you feel uncomfortable. Talk to your loved one about how you feel. You may even decide to get your head shaved so that you and your loved one are bald together!

What's going to happen to me?

If your loved one has cancer, your life is going to change. It's not going to be easy. Here are some things you can expect.

Helping out. You may have to help out more around the house if your loved one has cancer. For example, you may have to set the table every night. You may feel upset with having more things to do. You may want to spend more time with your friends. If you feel like you have too much to do, talk about it with someone.

Missing loved ones. When a loved one has cancer, he or she may have to go away for treatment. And if a loved one is away from home a lot, chances are, another loved one is too. For example, if your mother has cancer, your father may also be with her at the hospital.

Others caring for you. If one of your parents has cancer, your other parent may need extra help. This may mean that another relative will come to stay with your family or you may have to go away to stay with someone. Henry had to live with his father and his stepmother. This can be very hard. You will miss your family. But maybe you will be able to do things with your relative who is taking care of you. They may take you to the movies or to the zoo.

Special treatment. If your brother or sister has cancer, it may feel like he or she is getting special treatment. In a way, he or she has to because he or she is sick. But it may make you mad. You might get in trouble for doing something, but your brother or sister won't. Your parents probably want to do all they can for your sick brother or sister. It may seem like he or she gets away with things because he or she is sick. It doesn't seem fair, but try not to let it bother you.

Friends. Your friends may feel funny around you because your loved one has cancer. They may not want to make you feel bad, so they may not ask about your loved one. Or, they may not understand cancer. They may tease you or think that they could catch cancer from you. It may help you to talk to your friends. Your parents may talk to your teacher and your teacher may talk to the class about cancer. There may also be times when you don't want to talk about your loved one's cancer. Or you may not want to see your friends. That's OK. But try to reach out to your friends. They will want to know that you still care about them. It's important to see your friends.

Talking about cancer. If you feel sad or mad about your loved one's cancer and its effect on you, talk to someone. You loved one's hospital may have support groups for kids. There you can talk to other kids who have a loved one with cancer. Or, it may help you to talk to a counselor. A counselor can help you feel better about how you feel.

What will happen to my family?

Many people today survive cancer, but some people do not. Some people die. For some people who survive cancer, sometimes cancer can come back. You may wonder what will happen to your family if their cancer comes back or if your loved one dies.

Death. When a loved one has cancer, he or she could die. Many people who have cancer do not die. You may be very scared thinking that your loved one could die. Your loved one may be scared too. If one of your parents has cancer, you may wonder what will happen to you if that parent dies. Chances are, your ill parent has thought about that. Talk about how you feel. If you feel funny talking about death with your loved one who has cancer, talk to someone else. Talk to a parent, relative, or teacher.

Cancer returns. Sometimes doctors think that they have cured cancer, but it comes back. When cancer comes back, it usually means that the cancer is serious. Your loved one will probably need stronger treatment. Again, it's important to talk about how you feel.

When someone you love has cancer, it can feel like your world is falling apart. It may be hard to do everyday things, like going to a soccer game. But it's important. You should help your family when someone has cancer. But you should also help yourself. Talk about how you feel and try to do everyday things.


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