What to Do if Your Child Relapses

Tatyana Abrams and her mom, Deanna
Tatyana Abrams and her mom, Deanna

Relapse is a word any cancer patient dreads, but for parents of children with cancer, fear of the cancer coming back can be acute. Yet, “a cure is possible for many patients whose cancer returns,” says Barbara Degar, MD.  “We approach the second experience with the same rigor we brought the first time, and come up with the best strategy to achieve a second remission.”

About 15-20 percent of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) will relapse, 40 percent of children with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), and 50 percent of children with neuroblastoma. In some cases, treatment the second time around includes a stem cell transplant.

“Once your child is in remission, you hold your breath every time you go back for blood tests,” says Deanna Abrams, whose daughter Tatyana was diagnosed with AML at age 10. Eight months after she finished treatment, her cancer returned.

If you learn that your child has relapsed, here is some advice from Abrams:

  • Realize that you are now an expert. You and your family have done this before. You are on familiar ground. You understand cancer, hospitals, side effects, and supportive resources.
  • Accept help. When we went through cancer the first time, we received many offers of help from friends and family, and we turned them down. This time we said, “Bring on the food.”
  • Draw inspiration from your child. Children are naturally hopeful. When they wake up every day they try again, no matter what happened to them the day before. They don’t hold onto anxiety the way adults do. When Tatyana learned she had to go back to the hospital, she said “Now I can get what I want from the cafeteria.” Her nurses welcomed her back with open arms.

Tatyana Abrams went into remission and survived her stem cell transplant and several complications. Now 16, she has just completed a full school year – the first year in five that was not interrupted by cancer.