What happens after your child is diagnosed with cancer?

children cancer

[4 MIN READ / 30 MIN LISTEN]

In this article:

  • When a child is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family experiences fear and anxiety.
  • Pediatric cancer specialists at Providence offer holistic services to provide support and strength.
  • Providence pediatric oncologist, Dr. Ross Goshorn, discusses high-quality care and support programs designed with the whole family in mind. These include child life, our hospital-based school program and Arts in Healing.

“Your child has cancer.”

As a parent, that news can feel like a gut punch. And it’s often followed by a whirlwind of lab tests, imaging scans, conversations about next steps and phone calls with concerned family members. In quiet moments, families are bound to experience fear and anxiety. The Providence cancer care team doesn’t want anyone to feel alone during the journey. This article is the first in a series about how we care for parents, children and family members along the way, highlighting the cancer care offered at one Providence location, Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital.

“We like to say it takes a strong village to care for a child with cancer, and for families who depend on Sacred Heart, our pediatric oncology team is that village,” says Ross Goshorn, MD, a pediatric oncologist at Providence. “We provide the highest level of care for children with cancer, along with support programs that meet the family’s emotional needs. Every person on our team is passionate about that — we’re a group of mama and papa bears who will do whatever we can to surround families with support and love.”

When test results indicate cancer for a child, it’s usually a pediatric oncologist who breaks the news to families. These conversations typically happen at the hospital, and they are never easy, says Dr. Goshorn, who recently appeared on the Let's Finish Cancer podcast produced by Providence. “I take a deep breath before I enter the room — it’s emotional for me, too,” he admits. “I share the news as gently as I can. First, I let parents know what we are up against and answer their questions. Then, as the initial shock wears off, our team moves forward as quickly as possible to develop a personalized treatment plan with the family.

Our commitment to family-centered care

The pediatric oncologists at Sacred Heart lead a team of nurses, social workers, child life specialists, pharmacists, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists, hospital-based teachers and many others to provide whole-person, family-centered care. Our team assesses each family’s needs and addresses them with a broad range of services. Cancer treatment can take months or even years, with a combination of inpatient and outpatient care. As the family’s needs change, our care plan for their child does too.

Social workers provide important services to families

Each family works with a social worker, who helps them adjust to the cancer diagnosis and treatment regimen. These specialists offer services such as crisis intervention and individual and family counseling. Social workers also help connect families to resources, such as:

  • Assistance with travel, lodging and transportation
  • Collaboration with financial advocates for insurance and prescription needs
  • Financial assistance, including gas and grocery cards
  • Information about other organizations that can provide support, such as Ronald McDonald House in Spokane, the Community Cancer Fund and cancer support groups
  • Patient and family advocacy, including assistance navigating the hospital system

Kids and family members who need extra support can also access our psychologists. These therapists have special training and expertise in helping families navigate the emotional toll of a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Child life: Letting kids be kids

Child life specialists at Sacred Heart help kids and their families cope with the stress and anxiety of a cancer diagnosis. Specially trained in childhood development, child life specialists try to make the care experience as “normal” as possible so kids can still be kids. These specialists:

  • Bring fun activities into the care setting (crafts, video games, board games, etc.)
  • Talk to children about their condition and treatment, using easy-to-understand language
  • Teach coping techniques for stress and pain management
  • Use play to distract kids during procedures

Child life specialists also provide support for brothers and sisters who may feel confused, anxious or even resentful during their sibling’s illness. “We do a developmental assessment for each sibling and then work with families to provide support,” says Lea Thompson, MS, CCLS, practicum coordinator and certified child life specialist in our pediatric outpatient oncology clinic. “This might involve encouraging parents to maintain a routine at home and helping them find ways to make sure siblings get the love and attention they need. Over time, a sibling’s needs can change, so we’ll also do check-ins to see how they are doing throughout the journey.”

Arts in Healing: Bringing creative expression to the bedside

Research shows that opportunities for creative expression can help children recover from trauma and adversity. That’s why Sacred Heart offers the Arts in Healing program, which brings in artists to do art projects with kids, such as drawing, photography, and writing poetry and song lyrics. “We find that these activities help kids process their emotions, experience less stress and anxiety and build coping skills,” Thompson says.

Academic support during and after a hospital stay

It isn’t unusual for kids to miss an entire year of school (or more) while receiving cancer treatment. In addition to falling behind academically, they miss their friends and the daily routine of taking classes. Sacred Heart’s hospital-based school program fills a critical need by providing individual and group instruction and homework support for kids with cancer.

“The program is staffed by a group of teachers, many of them volunteers, who keep kids engaged academically during cancer treatment,” says Annette Deakins, RN, a nurse manager in our outpatient pediatric oncology clinic. “When the time comes for children to return to their ‘real’ school, our teachers work with the child’s classroom teachers and school counselors to make the transition go as smoothly as possible.”

Our cancer team members have even talked with the child’s classmates to explain what their friend has gone through and let them know what to expect when their friend returns, Deakins adds.

Bell-ringing remission ceremony

At Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital, a child’s last day of cancer treatment is cause for celebration! To mark the occasion, our cancer team gathers the whole family for a bell-ringing ceremony that includes singing and cheering as the child rings a hand-held bell. “Together, we are celebrating this child and their family for all they have gone through,” Deakins says.

Getting to know families through the ups and downs of cancer treatment is uniquely rewarding, Deakins adds. “You watch families progress from being super sad on the day they learn their child has cancer to becoming pillars of strength through the challenges they face,” she says. “Nothing compares to that.”

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Find pediatric cancer care

When your child has cancer or a blood disorder, you want the best care possible for your child. At Providence, our pediatric oncology and hematology specialists are here for every aspect of your child’s care. If you need to find a specialist or pediatrician for your child, you can use our provider directory.

At Providence, we’re taking all the necessary precautions to keep you (and our staff) safe and to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

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Related resources

Child life specialists help make hospitals less scary

Jersey Mike’s Month of Giving Raises Funds for Arts in Healing program

Keep kids healthy, safe with recommended vaccines

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Cancer Team is committed to bringing you the most up-to-date insights about treatments, prevention, care and support available. We know cancer diagnoses strain you both mentally and physically, and we hope to provide a small piece of hope to you or your loved ones who are fighting the cancer battle with useful and clinically-backed advice.

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