Holistic Care for Kids

Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on December 08, 2020

If your child has cancer, you’re always looking for ways to ease treatment side effects. If you want ones that don’t involve taking more medicine, there’s a range of holistic methods that can help ease pain, anxiety, fatigue, and nausea.

If you’re new to complementary treatments, as they're known, you may be surprised to learn how common they are for kids. One study found that up to 84% of children with cancer have used these methods along with standard medical treatments. However, there isn’t a lot of proof of how well they work. For every study that says they help, there’s one that says they don’t.

Meditation and deep breathing are common ways to lower stress in adults and kids with cancer. Acupuncture can help with fatigue, pain and nausea. But there are other techniques that can help with symptoms and may be a lot more fun for your child.

Art Therapy

This isn’t just drawing pictures. It’s part of the mental health field. Your child will create art to explore feelings, ease worries, boost self-esteem, and more. Choose an art therapist who has a master’s degree, and knowledge of the creative process, psychology, and counseling.

Art therapy may help your child’s overall well-being. It could:

  • Lower anxiety and fear
  • Ease pain
  • Improve communication with their health care team
  • Rebuild self-esteem that they may have lost due to treatment

Distraction Therapy

The idea is to take your child’s mind off the pain, procedures, or other unpleasant things that go with cancer. Almost any enjoyable activity can count: A younger kid could rock a baby. An older one could watch fun movies. 

You don't need a therapist for this technique. Kids can do it on their own. Whether they play video games or work on crafts, they’re doing something good for themselves. It can ease pain, fear, and nausea.

This kind of play time is so important to kids’ well-being that some children’s hospitals have game rooms. They’re filled with fun activities for all age groups, from toddler toys to video games. Someone can bring these things to your child’s bedside on days when they can’t make it to the game room.

Laughter Therapy

There’s science at work here: When you laugh, your body releases feel-good hormones called endorphins. That’s why cancer centers and hospitals offer this therapy. Although research is limited, studies show a session can quickly improve many negative feelings. 

It can also:

  • Ease pain
  • Relax muscles
  • Calm fears
  • Improve mood
  • Relieve stress

Animal Therapy

Canines and Childhood Cancer, a research project run by the American Humane Association, aims to show how therapy dogs that visit hospitals can make kids healthier.

There’s already research on the benefits of animal therapy for adults. Across the country, well-behaved therapy dogs go to hospitals to raise spirits. This is known as pet therapy, animal therapy, or animal-assisted therapy.

A session for your child could work like this: A dog and its handler visit the hospital room for 10 to 15 minutes. While your child pets the dog, they may feel less pain, anxiety, depression, and fatigue. The dog can ease stress and anxiety for anyone else in the room, and they enjoy the attention, too. Everybody wins.

Exercise and Yoga

We know activity helps adults with cancer treatment, but kids may not benefit as much. A 2016 review of five studies looked at the results of an exercise program for kids with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer. It found that exercise didn’t seem to ease fatigue or improve daily activity.

However, yoga may ease side effects after cancer treatment. One study found that a 6-week program helped with fatigue, anxiety, balance, and sleep for kids between 10 and 17. Another small study found that yoga improved fatigue among young adult survivors of childhood cancer.

WebMD Medical Reference



Myers, C. Cancer Control, July 2005.

Phipps, Sean. Cancer, Aug. 15, 2010.

National Cancer Institute: “Children with Cancer: A Guide for Parents.”

American Art Therapy Association: “What is Art Therapy?”

Derman, Y. Cancer Nursing, published online Nov. 24, 2015.

CHOC Children’s: “The Hospital Experience.”

Kim, S. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, published online May 24, 2015.

American Humane Association: “Canines and Childhood Cancer.”

Mayo Clinic: “Pet therapy: Man’s best friend as healer.”

Cochrane: “Physical exercise training interventions for children and young adults during and after treatment for childhood cancer.”

Hooke, M. Journal of Pediatric Oncology Nursing, January-February 2016.

Evans, S. Journal of Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology, published online April 25, 2016.

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