Coping with tests and treatment

Children react to tests and treatment in different ways depending on their age, developmental stage (which means how they behave and what they’re able to understand) and personality. Some children may become dependent and demanding. Others may become withdrawn or take their frustrations out on their parents or caregivers.

Unexpected stress is harder to cope with than expected stress. Children will be less anxious and better able to cope if they understand what will happen during a procedure and how it will help them. When children are less anxious, the procedure will go more smoothly and quickly.

Preparing children for tests or treatment

Talking to children about tests or treatment before they happen can help them be mentally and physically prepared. Many families find it helpful to take a tour of the room where the test or treatment will be done and to meet the people who will do the procedure. Encourage your child to ask questions and try to answer them as honestly and fully as possible. When possible, tell your child the following:

  • what they will hear, see, smell, feel or even taste during the test
  • why they need to have the test or treatment
  • who will do the procedure
  • where the test or treatment will be done
  • what part of the body will be tested or treated
  • how the test or treatment is done (including any equipment that will be used or any noises they may hear)
  • each step in the procedure if there is more than one
  • what the test or procedure feels like (be as descriptive as possible)
  • how long the test or treatment may last

Managing pain during tests and treatment

Some tests or treatments for cancer may be uncomfortable or painful. Being stressed about the test can make the pain worse. There are different ways to manage your child's pain or help them relax and stay calm during a test or treatment. The best ways to manage pain or stress will depend on the situation. Non-medicine methods are often combined with medicine to treat a child’s pain.

Non-medicine methods

Stress can make pain worse, so you can help your child just by talking about their stress or anxiety. Children often feel stressed or scared for a long time before a test or treatment. Preparing a child for a test or treatment should begin long before they actually get to the procedure room. There are resources available at the hospital to help you.

In some cases, you can manage pain with physical, psychological or complementary therapies.

Medicine methods

Sedation or anesthesia may be used to control pain or help children stay calm during tests or treatment. Sedation uses medicine to calm a child down or help them sleep. Anesthesia uses medicines to numb a certain part of the body (local anesthesia) or cause a loss of consciousness or awareness (general anesthesia).

Find out more about sedation and anesthesia.

Making decisions about methods

When deciding how to manage pain and which anesthetic or sedative (if any) to use, the healthcare team will consider:

  • the type of test (including if it is painful, how long it takes and if the child needs to be completely still)
  • any conditions the child has that may be affected by sedation or anesthesia (such as cardiovascular problems, asthma or neurological problems)
  • the child’s size
  • the child's age and developmental level
  • the child’s personality

Expert review and references

  • American Cancer Society. Children Diagnosed with Cancer: Dealing with Diagnosis. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2012.

Helping infants cope with tests and treatment (birth to 12 months)

It is difficult to prepare infants for tests or treatments because they can’t talk or understand explanations. The most important way to help infants during procedures is to be there and care for them.

Helping toddlers cope with tests and treatment (1 to 2 years)

The most important way you can help toddlers (1 to 2 years) cope with tests or treatment is by preparing them before they happen and supporting them while they happen. Children this age can usually talk, but they can't talk about feelings – they act them out.

Helping preschoolers cope with tests and treatment (3 to 5 years)

The most important way parents and caregivers can help preschoolers (3 to 5 years) is by preparing them and supporting them during the procedure. It is important to make sure that the child understands that the test or treatment is not a punishment and that they did not do anything wrong.

Helping school-age children cope with tests and treatment (6 to 12 years)

School-age children (6 to 12 years) are usually willing to cooperate because they understand cause and effect (for example, taking medicines and doing what doctors tell them will help them get better). They also take pride in doing most things by themselves.

Helping teenagers cope with tests and treatment (13 years and older)

Teenagers want to be independent of adults and they want to be like their friends. Illness, medical issues and treatment can make teenagers feel different when they are trying hard to fit in.

Medical disclaimer

The information that the Canadian Cancer Society provides does not replace your relationship with your doctor. The information is for your general use, so be sure to talk to a qualified healthcare professional before making medical decisions or if you have questions about your health.

We do our best to make sure that the information we provide is accurate and reliable but cannot guarantee that it is error-free or complete.

The Canadian Cancer Society is not responsible for the quality of the information or services provided by other organizations and mentioned on, nor do we endorse any service, product, treatment or therapy.

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