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Keeping Your Child Healthy During Cancer Remission

Remission. It’s probably one of the most beautiful words you can hear when your child’s been fighting cancer.

Remission is defined as a period of time when the cancer is under control. Sometimes it’s described as “partial,” which means the cancer is responding well to treatment and being held at bay. Sometimes it’s “complete,” which means the cancer is no longer detectable by doctors’ tests. When cancer has been in complete remission for several years, doctors may consider a child to be cured.

Remission is a huge milestone in cancer treatment. Physically, it means your child is likely to feel better, eat better, and have more energy. Emotionally, it serves as a beacon of hope. It’s not surprising that many families with a child in remission feel empowered to make lifestyle changes that could benefit their child’s health in the future.

Changes for the Long Run

Many of the health recommendations for a child in remission are the same ones that apply to the rest of us: eat well, exercise, go for regular checkups, don’t smoke. But for many parents, they seem to take on new urgency after a child’s been sick.

Of course, a child in remission shouldn’t be held to different standards than the rest of the family. After all, you can’t put a plate of veggies in front of one child while everyone else has cheeseburgers. The goal is to make healthy habits a family affair. By weaving — sometimes one strand at a time — healthy behaviors into the fabric of your family’s everyday life, everyone benefits.

Here are some specific tips to get you started on the right track:

Make Sure Your Child Gets Good Follow-Up Care

Checkups and well visits are important for all of us, but for kids in remission they’re an absolute necessity.

Your child’s oncologist will recommend a schedule of follow-up care that might include physical exams, blood tests, and imaging tests. Stick to this schedule, even if your child seems perfectly well and has no symptoms whatsoever. This careful monitoring is the best way to detect and treat any potential problems — whether related to the cancer or the late effects of treatment — as early as possible.

As kids get older and start to manage their own medical care, provide them with all medical records so that they can maintain their scheduled follow-up visits for years to come.

Monitor Your Child’s Health

Ask your child to tell you whenever he or she isn’t feeling well or something just doesn’t seem right.

Many kids in remission often wait to tell their parents if they’re not feeling well, for fear that the cancer has come back. Reassure your child that most kids in remission stay that way and are eventually cured of the cancer. Like everyone else, they’re likely to get colds and bouts of sickness from time to time, but if the illness is something more than that, it’s best to see a doctor early on.

Stick to a Healthy Diet

Now that your child is getting his or her appetite back and many of the unpleasant side effects of treatment are subsiding, it’s important to make healthy eating a priority. A well-balanced diet can help your child regain strength and repair the tissue damage caused by chemotherapy, radiation, or both. It also may help to reduce your child’s risk of developing other cancers later in life.

Keep these tips in mind:

  • Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables daily, of all kinds and colors.
  • Select high-quality protein sources, such as lean meats, fish, nuts, and eggs.
  • Choose foods rich in fiber, like whole-wheat pastas, breads, cereals, and rice.
  • Cut down on fat by switching to low-fat milk and yogurt, and by baking, broiling, or grilling foods instead of frying them.
  • Avoid processed foods, which can be loaded with salt, fat, and chemical preservatives.
  • Drink plenty of water and keep soda to a minimum.

If you’re unsure about where to start, ask your doctor to put you in touch with a nutritionist who can help you develop a family meal plan that works for everyone.

Encourage Regular Exercise

People who exercise and maintain a healthy weight are less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers later in life, so ask the doctor to recommend suitable activities.

Your child may have to take it slowly at first, perhaps starting with 20 or 30 minutes of exercise each day and working up to the goal of 60 minutes at least 5 days a week. (Strength and flexibility training are great to include in these workouts.)

Once your child is feeling better, you can also ask the doctor if and when your child can resume any sports played before the cancer diagnosis. And if your child needs proof that people who’ve had cancer can indeed be competitive again, just point to cycling champion Lance Armstrong!

Be sun safe. Whenever out in the sun, your child should use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Tanning salons are also a big no, as they can cause skin damage that can eventually lead to cancer.

For older kids, it’s particularly important that they learn how to check their own skin for any new growths or moles that look different in color, shape, or size.

Staying Positive

Kids are the most resilient of us all. Even after cancer, most are able to return to their friends and activities, some even happier than before because they realize how the things we take for granted can often change in an instant.

As a parent, don’t lose sight of this optimism when your child is in remission. Even though you can’t predict the future, you can still make the here and now the best it can be for your child. And part of that is doing whatever you can to give your child the best possible chance of a healthy tomorrow.

Reviewed by: Joanne Quillen, MSN, PNP-BC
Date reviewed: May 2012