How Child Life Specialists Support Childhood Cancer Patients

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is difficult, no matter your age. It can be particularly challenging for children who might not understand what cancer is or what it means for them. Long hours spent in the hospital also mean children often don’t have many opportunities to just be a kid.

At Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, our certified child life specialists support pediatric cancer patients and their families during their childhood cancer journey. They implement and oversee special activities and programs designed for their unique needs.

What Do Child Life Specialists Do?

A certified Child Life Specialist is a health care professional who specializes in helping pediatric cancer patients understand and cope with the anxieties and stresses of cancer. They help them confront fears, cope with procedures and normalize the hospital environment. Child Life Specialists incorporate play therapy, games, arts and crafts and other distraction techniques while continually advocating for a child’s needs throughout treatment. 

These specialists spend the day with a child and their family if they are at the end-of-life stage. They also help patients honor important treatment milestones and celebrate significant life events, like birthdays and graduations. For example, they help children participate in the Beads of Courage program. This program encourages patients to create a colorful glass bead strand, with each representing an important event or milestone.

Four Diamonds' funding supports Child Life Specialists that help children fighting childhood cancer.
Tiffaney Horner with Child Life, helps Allyson Musser, 8, pick out a prize after she won a round of BINGO to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the freestanding Penn State Health Children’s Hospital.

How Pediatric Oncology Child Life Services Benefit Children Facing Cancer

There are many ways the support of our certified child life specialists benefits children facing cancer, including:

  • Education: Our child life specialists educate patients about their diagnosis using age-appropriate language and tools, including medical play and photo books.
  • Normalizing the environment: The hospital can be a scary place for children. Child life specialists normalize the hospital environment for them, seeking to make it an inviting place.
  • Advocacy: A child life specialist is a child’s advocate. They assist them in adjusting to childhood cancer and teach them to advocate for themselves. They also become the child’s voice to the rest of their care team.
  • Alleviating stress: Alleviating stress is a priority for our child life specialists. They help children find fun and engaging activities they enjoy to relieve their anxiety.
  • Confronting fears: Child life specialists help children cope with and face fears about their cancer diagnosis or treatment. A child life specialist might use play therapy and other techniques to help them process their unease.
  • Cope with procedures: Our team assists pediatric patients in coping with painful procedures, tests and surgeries with distraction techniques or play therapy.

Additional Resources and Support for the Whole Family

It’s our mission to provide children and their families with the resources and support they need during cancer treatment. From pet therapy to sibling support services, our certified shild life specialists at Penn State offer help and support for the whole family, including:

  • Playrooms: Our hospital playrooms feature updated toys, educational resources and interactive devices, like video goggles and Vecta Sensory Stations.
  • Facility Dogs: Kids are delighted to encounter Kaia, Pilot and Captain — our friendly Golden Retriever facility service dogs. These professionally trained facility dogs not only soothe and uplift patients during their hospital visits; they also provide customized interventions like demonstrating how to be still on a CT scan table.
  • Sibling support: It can be difficult for children to see their siblings in the hospital. Our child life specialists educate and support siblings during cancer treatment, so they can process the changes and emotions caused by seeing their sibling cope with cancer.
  • Family events: We also host monthly family lunches, dinners and movie nights. These fun events allow parents to meet other families, bond with care providers and help children make new friends.


Four Diamonds' funding supports Child Life Facility Dogs, like Becky, at Penn State Children's Hospital
Child Life Facility Dog Becky at Penn State Children’s Hospital

Support Four Diamonds and Provide Critical Pediatric Oncology Child Life Services

At Four Diamonds, our compassionate care team aims to conquer childhood cancer. We assist children and their families through superior care, comprehensive support and innovative research. Our holistic care approach provides for the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual needs of all Four Diamond’s children and their families.

With 11 certified child life specialists, Four Diamonds has one of the most extensive Pediatric Oncology Child Life Programs in the state of Pennsylvania. Together, our caring specialists touch the lives of 100,000+ pediatric cancer patients and their families annually. Thanks to your generous support, every Four Diamonds child and family member will have caring child life specialists throughout their cancer treatment journey and into survivorship.

Learn more about how your donations help children conquer cancer or see other ways you can be involved in our life-saving mission.