Cancer and Kids

More and more women find themselves with a cancer diagnosis and children, maybe even little ones.

   

According to the National Cancer Institute's 2003 data,  breast cancer rates in women between ages thirty and thirty-nine is 1 in 233 and 1 in 69 in women between ages forty and forty-nine. 

This was truly one of the most daunting parts of the experience for me and my husband.  How can I be the toughest fighter possible against the cancer while keeping my children's  life as normal and happy as possible?

Just after my diagnosis we began to look into how to tell our children, then ages two and six. There are many resources out there for dealing with these issues - books (both for parents and picture books for children), on-line information, social workers and counselors at cancer centers and other treatment facilities, etc.  We used these as well as simply trying to find the best presentation to match our kids' personalities. 

 We realized after some thought that what worked for us was that we had to be honest and about what was going on at a level that was age appropriate. 

 We began with a basic explanation of the fact that I had a disease called breast cancer which involved some of the good cells in my body going a little nuts, growing too rapidly and making a "lump".  We then emphasized the following points:
       
1.  It is not contagious.
2.  Mommy will get better.
3.  It is not their fault.

Our son, Noah, while only six at the time, loves science, so we knew that a certain amount of scientific explanation would be interesting to him.  He is also pretty emotional so we also wanted the scientific information to be comforting, and talked about it that way.

Our daughter Maya was only two at the time.  My husband's initial inclination was to tell only Noah about what was going on.  For me, this felt wrong.  My cancer was going to effect Maya just as much as the rest of the family.  I also thought that by excluding her from the conversation we would make it seem even bigger and scarier to both children.  We agreed to tell them both together, with a combination of factual and emotional information, some of which we knew would too complicated for a two year old to understand.  But, it was our first acknowledgement of the situation as a family and it set the tone for the life of our family for the next year.

For us, it was important to use the word cancer  instead of euphemisms like "sickness".  We knew that we could not protect them from this word so decided to remove some of its power and therefore terror by casually using it just as an accurate description; nothing to be feared.  

We also told the children's teachers so that they could be watchful for any questions or unusual behaviors.

We prepared the children for my impending baldness by talking a lot about it, cutting my long hair in stages to minimize the dramatic impact, and promising to let them decorate my head with (washable!) markers. 

Finally, deep in my heart I promised myself that I was going to beat this thing and be OK, all the time hoping that this conviction would be implicitly passed along to the kids.   (We knew early on that my cancer was most likely beatable so I in no way want to suggest that, for those for whom cancer is not survivable, that they somehow didn't fight hard enough.)

It is easy to forget in the midst of one's own anxiety, the anxiety and responsibility that can be felt by young children.

My daughter, now 3 ½, still plays "chemotherapy" with her dolls.

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