Being in hospital

Young people with cancer, when they have to go into hospital, may be treated on a ward for children, or on a ward for adolescents (though not all hospitals have these) or they may be treated on a ward for adults. This rather depends on the young persons’ age. The younger they are the more likely they will be on a children’s ward, the older ones are more likely to end up on an adult ward if there is no specific adolescent ward. Sometimes, though not always, these wards will specially be for people with cancer. Depending on the type of treatment they are having it might only be necessary to stay in for a few days, but some of the young people we talked to had to stay in hospital for several weeks or even, on rare occasions, for months. Here they talk about what it is like being in hospital.
A children’s hospital ward can provide both entertainment and distractions (including organised activities). Most of the young people we talked to had stayed in children’s wards specialising in cancer and they praised the high standard of care and the willingness of the nurses to talk, answer questions and take their time over providing explanations. 
Not unnaturally, there were some young people we interviewed who regretted that there weren’t many facilities for people in their early teens as children’s wards are not always the most suitable places for young people. They can be noisy and there may be a limit to the number of times people can listen to the Teletubbies theme tune! Wards that had very young children are also distressing if the children got upset and cried, but it can be amazing to see how quickly little children can bounce back after a lumbar puncture or other medical procedures.

Young people in their early teens can spend time on both children’s and adult wards and those we spoke to were able to make comparisons between the two. Although some felt comfortable in both environments, others preferred the children’s ward because they were more sympathetically looked after by the children’s nurses. Parents also commented that, unlike the situation on adult wards, nurses on children’s wards were more sensitive to the parents’ needs as well as to their patients.

Some young people we talked to found adult cancer wards hard to cope with because other patients were as ancient as their grandparents. One young woman even suspected that her being on the adult ward might have been unsettling for the older women there, who didn’t talk to her. It can also be very tough when other people on the ward die, something that happens more often on adult wards. A depressing atmosphere on the ward certainly does not help you to feel better yourself. This is particularly difficult to cope with if you have a lengthy stay in hospital. Another factor is that adult general wards tend to have more restrictions on visiting hours, whereas children’s wards allow parents to stay and visit as often as they like.

On the other hand serious illness can really break down barriers and some young people greatly enjoyed talking to older adults on the ward and found they had a surprising amount in common. 

Different hospital wards are arranged in different ways. Some of the older wards are large long rooms with beds all the way down each side, while modern wards are arranged in 3 or 4-bedded rooms, or are single rooms. Although when you’re feeling really ill you may not mind what sort of room you’re in, some young people did not like being in a room on their own and would have liked it better to be in with other young people. Others wanted peace and quiet and wanted to keep themselves to themselves. There was a comment that being in hospital sometimes felt like being in a ’prison’ and that therefore a release could be wonderful.

The number of specialist teenage cancer units is increasing across the UK. Where they do exist the atmosphere in these units was generally described as enjoyable and provided the opportunity to realise that they were not alone, which in turn, seemed to provide important and informal emotional support. The nurses were cheerful, tended to be young, and the atmosphere of the place was upbeat.

One young woman noticed that young people in her teenage cancer unit tended to talk about mundane things rather than about raw feelings and emotions.

Even young people who went into hospital for short periods of time often said that they preferred being at home. Not surprisingly they found that the side effects of their treatment lessened when they were at home, and they said that their mum’s food was better and they felt that they could rest better at home where they were not constantly reminded about their illness. However, most felt that hospital was the best place to be if they were seriously ill.

Young people we spoke to frequently commented that the nurses were great, or ’just wonderful’. They were praised not only for their professionalism, but also for their sense of humour, compassion and sensitivity. For young people nurses can make the stay in hospital a far less scary experience. Although an occasional older teenager thought that a children’s ward nurse was a bit patronising, most thought they were ’just great’. Nurses tend to be less formal than doctors and young people found it much easier to ask them questions. Some young people also had care from specialist cancer nurses called ’CLIC’ nurses and ’Macmillan’ nurses. Others had specialist cancer social workers from Sargent care. The care and information from all these people was much appreciated.


Last reviewed December 2017.
Last updated November 2014.


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