An estimated one in two Australians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, with more than 120 000 people diagnosed with cancer every year. Of these, about 1000 school-aged children develop cancer.
Many West Australians’ lives are touched by cancer, and children may experience a cancer diagnosis themselves, or of a parent, sibling, family member, neighbour, friend, teacher, or someone they are close to. A person’s understanding of cancer depends on their age, maturity level and experience with the disease.
When someone they know is diagnosed with cancer, a child can have a range of reactions. These general guidelines may help you to pick up on signs of distress in children and provide age-appropriate support.
Dealing with cancer 4-7 years old
In their younger years, children have a basic understanding of sickness. When someone they know has cancer, they may worry that they will catch the disease or that they caused it (e.g. by being naughty or thinking bad thoughts about the person). At this age, most children are egocentric: they often think everything is related to them and may not yet empathise with others. They tend to notice (and comment on) physical changes. Young children may be just starting to realise that people, including parents, can die.
Dealing with cancer 7-12 years old
By this age most children are ready for more complex explanations of cancer and cells. Like younger children, they may feel responsible for causing the cancer of someone they know and may blame it on their own bad behaviour. Many are starting to comprehend the finality of death and its impact (especially if they have been exposed to death at a young age.)
If you, your child or someone you know is experiencing cancer, we can help. Visit our talking to your children about cancer page for more information or read our publications Cancer in the School Community and Talking to Kids About Cancer. For more detailed information or advice please contact us on 13 11 20.