understanding cancer

Understanding Cancer: What Do Kids Understand At Different Ages? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this 2-part series, I discussed how understanding cancer can be difficult. I explained how kids understand cancer when they are infants, toddlers, and young children.

Now, let’s take a look at older kids—what they know, fear, and understand about cancer.

Older Kids (Middle School/Junior High)

What Are The Details?

As they start to get older, middle school and junior high-aged kids have a better understanding of the human body. They aren’t necessarily satisfied with just knowing they’re sick—they want details. Where is the cancer in my body? What does it look like? How did it get there?

These kids are also curious about the details of treatment. If they’re having surgery, they want to see the operating room ahead of time or learn about will happen while they’re not awake.

This is where a child life specialist can be a big help.

understanding cancer

I’ve Heard About Cancer.

This is the age where kids start to learn about cancer from outside sources. They hear about it in the news, on TV, from their friends. This exposure can make your child feel less alone and decrease stigma. But sometimes, it’s not quite so helpful.

The information your child hears might not be accurate, or it might not apply to her type of cancer. When she tells you something she’s heard, or if you see a show or commercial about cancer together, take a few minutes to debrief.

Ask her how it made her feel, and remind her that everyone’s experience with cancer is different.


I Want To Be Involved.

Teenagers have many of the same questions as junior high-aged kids. They want a more detailed explanation of cancer, and they are constantly exposed to stories about cancer.

But unlike kids, teenagers aren’t always satisfied with just learning the details. Often, they want to be involved in their own care and decision-making. Allowing your teenager to sit it on discussions with his physician is an easy way to give him a sense of involvement and control.

My Looks Are Going To Change.

Teens know that their treatments can cause side effects, especially when it comes to physical appearance. However, they might not be aware of which types of treatments cause which changes.

Prepare your teen by being honest about the changes that could be in store, but shy away from listing every possible side effect. Hearing about too many effects might make her only concentrate on the negatives of treatment, rather than the fact that treatment can make her better.

I Won’t Fit In.

This is something that most teens worry about, but teens with cancer tend to worry about it even more. Between changes in their appearance and constantly being absent from school or activities, they might get nervous about their social life.

Build up your teen’s confidence by reassuring him that he is the same person he was before his diagnosis. Suggest that he invite his friends to visit in the hospital. If he’s not allowed to have visitors, encourage video chats, so he can still keep up with his friends.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also read:

Christy Hogan
My background is in child development, and I use this knowledge to connect and build trust with patients and families. I’ve been a child life specialist for more than 20 years.

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