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Helping Children Understand Leukemia

Helping Children Understand Leukemia

Our Sibling Support Program team of four child life specialists and creative arts therapists knows that learning about an illness is different than understanding it.

Often when illnesses are not explained to children in an age-appropriate manner they may fill in the gaps with their imaginations, creating stories that may be even scarier than the reality. To help ill children, siblings and their parents understand how Leukemia affects a child’s body, our Sibling Support Specialists provide an interactive illness education session.

The Sibling Support Specialist begins by explaining that Leukemia is cancer of the blood, and guides in exploring the parts of the blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets inside plasma) using a worksheet Friends of Karen staff created.

After learning how each of these parts function, the child writes about or draws pictures of the cells in action. The Sibling Support Specialists will often use the book Chemo to the Rescue: A Children’s Book about Leukemia by Mary Brent and Caitlin Knutsson, in tandem with the session.

The next step is to create some “healthy blood.” In a small container we use water to represent plasma, the liquid portion of our blood. Then, we add two different colored beads; red (red blood cells that transport oxygen) and white (white blood cells that fight off germs), and a jeweled sticker to hold things together like platelets that help our blood clot.

Then we make a sample of “unhealthy blood” that is the same as the healthy blood but has one major difference – there are Leukemia cells represented with small balls of tissues. Once the tissue balls are in the water they enlarge and take up space.

This represents how Leukemia cells multiply rapidly and minimize the space for the other healthy blood cells to do their job, resulting in side effects like, being tired, bruising easily, and getting sick more often. Friends of Karen Sibling Support Specialists complete the session by explaining how chemotherapy and radiation can help get rid of the Leukemia cells. We will often give children the opportunity to “act like chemo” by removing the tissues/Leukemia from the blood.