Children's Frequently Asked Questions

We have tried to address common questions that young people have when a parent is diagnosed with cancer.

Can I get cancer?

You can console and empower your child by encouraging her to stay healthy. Eating and sleeping well, as well as getting enough exercise, are all things young people can do to help stay strong, healthy and cancer-free.

How does cancer start?

Cancer starts with abnormal cell growth, and starts for several different reasons.

Cells can change, and start to grow in an uncontrolled way, because of a person's environment—for example, when a person is exposed to toxic chemicals or a lot of pollution. Secondly, if a person has a weakened immune system, abnormal or "wild" cells in the body can grow out of control and begin to crowd out healthy cells. Lifestyle choices—such as cigarette smoking—is another cause of healthy cells changing and beginning to grow in an abnormal way.

How does cancer spread?

Cancer can spread from one place in your body to another. When cancer cells travel through the blood stream or lymphatic system, they can attach themselves to another body organ—that's called a metastasis. For example, colon cancer can travel to the liver. Breast cancer can travel to the bone.

Did I do something to cause my parent's cancer?

No. Cancer is not caused by things that people do or don't do to one another. Cancer starts when there are cell changes in the body. In the same way, you cannot do something—like be extra good—to make the cancer go away. (See above question, How does cancer start?)

Did my parent catch cancer from someone else?

No, cancer is not contagious.

Is my parent going to die?

Sometimes people do die from cancer, but often they do not. Treatment options include surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Patients can also do many things to help themselves in addition to what the doctors do to help them. However, in some instances treatment options fail to work and the cancer is deemed terminal. If you know that the patient is terminally ill, you would probably want to answer this question differently, e.g., "Your parent has had chemo and surgery and the doctors have come to a point where they don't know any more ways to help your parent. So right now it looks like your parent could die from cancer."

Who would take care of me if my parent died from cancer?

When a parent is going to die from cancer, they usually know it way ahead of time, and have ample opportunity to plan for the care of their family.

Encourage your child to ask what you're thinking, or to offer ideas as to who he would like to take care of him. (Note: this question is likely to be a particularly important one for children living in a single-parent family. Even when a child's parent is very likely to recover, children often have concerns about who will take care of them, and find it helpful to have this question aired.)

Should I talk to my friends about my parent's cancer?

It's usually good to share your thoughts and feelings with a friend, especially about something as serious as when a family member is ill. Friends can be a great source of strength and support. Sometimes kids don't want other kids in their classroom or school to know about their parent's cancer because they don't want to feel different. But secrets like this are hard—and so it's often better if classmates know. Sometimes a teacher can be helpful in getting the word out in an appropriate way.

Will I have to take care of mom or dad?

Usually other grownups will help take care of a parent who is very sick. But a young person may be requested to help out more at home- to do certain chores, or do small things like getting a blanket or a glass of water for an adult who is ill.

Be cautious about giving your child more responsibility than she can handle. Too much responsibility can frighten, tire, or overwhelm a child.

Kid Support encourages kids to speak to a trusted adult about getting more help—for example, from a teacher, a babysitter, or from someone at church.

Why do some people have surgery and others don't?

Different types of cancer require different treatments. Surgery is usually used when there's a lump of cancerous cells—a tumor—that doctors think they can remove.

What is chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful medicines to get rid of cancer. Some chemotherapy is given in the form of pills, or in the form of a liquid that can be swallowed. Most often, it is put directly into the bloodstream by means of a tube in the hand, arm, or chest.

What is radiation therapy?

Radiation therapy is the use of high-powered X-rays to destroy cancer cells. Special machines are used to deliver the X-rays directly to the spot where the cancer is growing, or to the spot where a tumor has been removed if doctors think there might possibly be some remaining cancer cells.

Why do people lose their hair when they have cancer?

Chemotherapy is the use of powerful medicine to destroy fast-growing cells. Both cancer cells and hair cells grow quickly. When chemotherapy is destroying cancer cells, it sometimes also destroys a person's hair cells. That's why people lose their hair when they have cancer.

Usually, hair cells are only temporarily destroyed. And so a person's hair almost always grows back when chemotherapy is finished.

What kind of a doctor treats cancer?

Oncology is the study of cancer, and so doctors who specialize in treating cancer patients are called oncologists.

A medical oncologist is a doctor who is an expert in the use of chemotherapy to treat cancer patients. A radiation oncologist is a doctor who is an expert in the use of radiation therapy to treat cancer.