Helping your child or teen understand leukemia can help him cope better with treatment. It is important to tell your child/teen about his illness and answer his questions in honest, simple terms. If you do not give your child/teen information in words he can understand, he will be left to imagine what is going to happen. These thoughts can often be scarier than the truth.
Many different staff members will be involved in helping your child understand his disease and treatments. A certified child life specialist is one of the team members who will work closely with your family. This staff member can help the patient and siblings understand treatment and adjust to being in the hospital. Child life specialists are here to work with your child/teen and his brothers and sisters at any time during your stay.
The following ideas may help you talk with your child/teen about leukemia. We suggest that you use the words “leukemia” and “cancer” openly. It will help him be more familiar with the words and feel more at ease when asking questions.
Use words that fit your child / teen’s age
Verbal Toddler: Since toddlers are just learning their body parts, they may not know the term blood. It is OK to tell your child that he is sick or that his body is sick, and that he will need medicines in the hospital or clinic to get well.
Preschooler and Early School-Age: If your child is in this age group, you can tell him that he is at St. Jude because his blood is sick. It is OK to start using the words leukemia and cancer.
School-Age: Many children at this age are learning about cells and know that all parts of their bodies are made up of cells. This is one way to help your child understand leukemia:
Your body is made up of 3 main types of blood cells and each one has a different job to help your body. White blood cells fight infections, like colds and the flu. Red blood cells carry the air (oxygen) throughout your body and give you energy. Platelets are the cells that help bleeding to stop by giving you scabs. When your blood is sick with leukemia, it makes sick cells that get in the way of all the healthy cells. Leukemia makes it hard for the healthy blood cells to do their jobs.
Teens: These patients are older and can often understand what the doctor is saying. But, it is still important to talk about the things that are said during these discussions. As with all ages, use the correct terms for the illness and treatments.
Keep in mind
Talking about your child/teen’s illness can bring up many questions. Talking freely with him about coming to the hospital and about his treatment can help him to cope.
At all age levels, it is important to assure your child/teen that his illness is not contagious; he cannot give it to anyone or get it from anyone else. Also, this illness is not a punishment; nothing your child/teen did or did not do could have made this illness happen.
Your child/teen may have a family member or friend who has had cancer or he may have heard stories about cancer. For this reason, it would be good to tell him that there are many types of cancer. Cancer can be in different parts of the body, and each person’s cancer is different. Each cancer patient takes different kinds of medicines that work best for that person’s cancer and body type.
The Child Life staff can work closely with your family to help your child/teen understand leukemia and adjust to being at St. Jude. At the same time, they help promote normal development. To learn more, call the Child Life department at (901) 595-3020. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, call toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).
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