Overcoming Speech Delay Outcomes in Children With Cancer

When children have a speech and language delay, they often can’t use words or other methods of communication at the expected ages.

One study estimates that speech and language delays are common in 2.53% of children aged 1 to 12 years. Causes of these delays often include family history, blood relationships, multilingual environment, inadequate stimulation, and low parental education.

Some experts also believe that childhood cancer is another potential cause of developmental delays.

Suppose one of the children under your care has speech delay problems and cancer. How do you manage their condition to help improve their communication skills? How does cancer affect a child’s speech development?

This article discusses how you can manage speech delay outcomes in children with cancer and help improve their speech and language skills.

This article also explains how cancer can affect early childhood development, especially children’s communication skills.

How to Manage Speech Delay Issues in Children With Cancer

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health said that infants and toddlers treated for cancer might reach certain developmental milestones later than these children’s healthier peers.

The findings show that developmental delays in a child can happen during the early stages of cancer treatment. The researchers suggest that young children with cancer may benefit from early interventions like language or physical therapy.

To manage speech and language delays in a child with cancer, you can coordinate with the child’s speech-language pathologist (SLP) and oncologist (a cancer doctor). These professionals can work with you to create a program to help the child communicate better.

Depending on the cause and type of the speech and language delay, the SLP can perform the following:

  • Assist the child in learning how to make speech sounds and combine these sounds into words to help the child produce sounds more easily.
  • Help the child understand what the words mean and create different sentence types.
  • Teach the child how to read social cues and communicate in different situations.
  • Help the child learn how to use special programs or apps on a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. These programs can have speech lessons or allow the child to communicate using symbols or objects.
  • Teach the child about sign language or use tools that can assist the children in communicating.
  • Recommend getting a hearing aid for the child, if needed.
  • Teach or work with you or the child’s parents to help the child practice new skills at home.

If the child with cancer has been diagnosed with speech and language delays, the doctor or SLP can suggest further tests. These tests include:

  • Hearing tests to rule out hearing loss
  • Tests to find out what speech sounds the child can make
  • Tests to determine whether the child has difficulty forming words and sentences from speech sounds
  • Reviews to check the child’s progress in gaining language, speech, and motor skills
  • Tests for behavioral problems, including trouble performing common skills like chewing, sucking, or swallowing

One study also suggests that engaging young cancer survivors in therapy through social interaction may be beneficial. One approach worth considering is providing instructions to parents on how to interact with children through language instead of going to a therapy center.

For parents, a few ways to encourage children to develop speech at home include:

  • Focusing on communication: Talk or sing to your child and encourage them to imitate sounds and gestures.
  • Reading to your child: Start reading books even when the child is still a baby. Look for age-appropriate books or picture books to encourage kids to look while you say the names of the objects in the pictures.
  • Using everyday situations: Build the child’s speech and language by talking to them about typical daily situations.

How Cancer Can Affect a Child’s Speech Development

Research shows that cancer and its treatments can delay a child’s development.

Cancer can affect children at an early age. For this reason, researchers also looked into the cancer types that have a long-term effect on a child’s development until adulthood.

These cancers include common ones like lung cancer and rare ones like mesothelioma and its four stages.

Compared to children without cancer, children diagnosed with cancer before turning four years old have slower progress in vocabulary, motor skills, and cognitive functions like attention and memory.

One study evaluated the performance of 61 children aged six months to 3.5 years and treated for tumors and blood-related cancers.

Results showed that the cancer survivors didn’t score as well as children without cancer on language, motor, and cognition milestone tests.

The study also mentioned that, based on developmental averages, children with cancer were about seven points below the average for mental development tests and 14 points below the average for motor tests.

Another impact of cancer and its treatment is that they can hinder a child’s improvement over time. For example, a child having difficulty learning a language can become frustrated and stop trying to learn it. In turn, this effect can develop into a bigger problem later in the child’s life.

Researchers also noted that caregivers assisting these children often wait until the cancer is in remission (when the symptoms reduce or disappear) before addressing other concerns.

From these findings, the researchers suggested further studies on whether early intervention for developmental delays can help improve the child’s condition.

To know more about overcoming speech and language delays in children with cancer, consult or work with an SLP or oncologist or contact the National Institutes of Health at 301-496-4000.


  1. Learning About Speech and Language Delays in Children


  1. Speech and language delay in children: Prevalence and risk factors


  1. NIH study links childhood cancer to delays in developmental milestones


  1. What are speech and language delays?


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