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The response to being diagnosed with pediatric cancer varies significantly from child to child, but most children are shocked and confused by the sudden transition from health to illness, and experience intense fear and anxiety about the unwelcome tests and procedures they are forced to undergo before and after receiving their diagnosis.

Hospital stays can be a new, upsetting, and often overwhelming experience for a child, as they try to adapt to being in a strange place and interacting with doctors and specialists who speak in complicated medical terms that a young child is unable to fully comprehend.

Age and personality are key factors that determine how a child might react to learning that they have cancer:

Infants and very young children diagnosed with cancer may:

  • Experience or express fear about being separated from their siblings and parents
  • Worry about painful medical procedures
  • Cling to parents or other family members
  • Express their anger and distress by screaming, throwing tantrums, hitting, or biting
    • As a young child attempt to process their new reality, they understandably have many questions as to why this has happened to them and justifiably feel that what they are enduring is entirely unfair. They may lash out or rebel at the idea of having to take large pills; talk to strangers; be poked and prodded; undergo tests in frightening machines; swallow horrible tasting medications; and stay in a hospital rather than the familiar comfort of their own beds.
  • Resist requests from caregivers or refuse to cooperate with medical professionals
  • Retreat inward, avoiding interaction with others
  • Feel depressed or sad that their normal playful experiences are restricted
    • As a child with cancer realizes that they will no longer be able to participate in activities that were important to them (i.e. sports, dancing, physical activities), this can trigger feelings of intense sadness and isolation, which can lead to depression. As they attempt to process their diagnosis and how it will impact their body and social relationships some children begin to feel hopeless, and worry that the painful treatments they must endure may not work.
  • Revert to self-soothing behaviors such as thumb sucking or bed wetting
  • Have recurrent nightmares

School-age children diagnosed with cancer may:

  • Be distraught about missing school, falling behind in their academics, and losing touch with friends or classmates
  • Express sadness and/or anger about the ramifications of their illness (i.e. loss of their normal life routines, health problems, limitations on their physical activities)
  • Experience feelings of guilt that they are responsible for somehow causing their cancer
    • It is natural for children to worry that the cancer is their fault, and that they became ill because they misbehaved or were ‘bad’ in some way. As they see the distress their illness is causing family members, they may feel guilt and concern about being the cause of worry for their parents, siblings, and friends.
  • Worry that others may “catch” their cancer
  • Seek out additional social and emotional support from friends and family

Looking for Help?

ACCO offers FREE books and resources for families of children with cancer.


The American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) is sensitive to the unique emotional and psychological needs of children with cancer, and provides several resources and books (in both English and Spanish) to help children cope with the confusing and upsetting changes they are experiencing as they battle childhood cancer.

These resources speak to children in terms they can understand, and help to explain what is happening while providing inspiration and hope. We offer tools to help children with cancer process their emotions and show them that they are not alone in this experience. We also provide fun, interactive options to distract from the day-to-day monotonous routines of the hospital while occupying their time in a positive way.

One in every 330 kids will be diagnosed with cancer before they are 20 years old.

Research saves lives. Please join with us to fund crucial research to cure all forms of childhood cancer.

 Click Here for Website Links for Kids with Cancer