When you are a parent, you want to protect your children from all the bad things in life as you love them so fiercely. You feel like this lioness with her cub, trying to shelter them from all impending harm. But when you are diagnosed with cancer, you are the one that sends your children’s world into a chaotic tailspin. Between the shock of diagnosis, the demands of treatment, and the uncertainty of what the future holds for you and your family, your children can’t help but be threatened by this disease that has invaded their lives.
Although I have had breast cancer 4 times, I only had children during the last bout in 2011. At that time, they were 9 and 11, old enough to understand what was going on but young enough that they still needed a parent who could be there for them 24/7. As a single mother with no other family for support, I found the competing demands of parenthood vs the painful realities of illness very overwhelming.
My children knew since a very young age that I had cancer 3 times way back before they were born. They were perversely proud of this fact about me as I guess it made them think I was Wonder Woman, able to beat cancer into submission at a single bound.
When after being cancer free for 16 years I learned it was back, I panicked about how I would explain this to my son and daughter. I had no idea how we would manage as in the past there was always someone around to take care of me. This time I was their caretaker and no one was volunteering to look after me (or them).
The children knew something was wrong before I was ready to have the cancer discussion. There were too many doctor’s appointments, too many whispered phone calls, and a few too many tears shed watching children’s television shows that weren’t particularly sad or sentimental. When your Mom bursts into tears over Sponge Bob’s latest escapade, the children fear the worst is about to happen. When they asked if they had done something to make Mommy so sad all the time, I knew I had to tell them the truth.
I did a little research on how to talk to your school age children about a cancer diagnosis. The articles mainly touch on three points which have been called the 3 “c” words. The first point is to call it cancer, not a generic sickness or a boo boo. The reasoning is that if they have a name and explanation of what your condition is, they will be less likely to worry about other more horrendous illnesses (maybe Ebola?) you may have. It helps as well for them to associate a specific term for the disease as they may become overly fearful of the word, “sick” as it applies to them. If they associate the word “sick” with Mommy having major surgery and going bald they may panic when someone calls them sick when they complain of a tummy ache or a sore throat. They may think their sickness may lead to the same extreme consequences that happened to Mommy. So instead of turning your children into hypochondriacs by using the word “sickness”, use the word “cancer” so they can differentiate between the two conditions.
This was the easy part for me. My children knew what cancer was because of my past history. On the other hand, they had never lived through it before and needed some explanations of the possible treatments that might be involved and the consequences of those.
My 11 year old son became fixated on the fact that I would lose my hair and that seemingly was his greatest concern throughout my treatment. Talking to him about my cancer now 4 years later, he admits he was secretly worried sick I would die and leave him. But it was safer for him to worry outwardly about my baldness, wanting me to wear a wig, even to sleep. My little caps and turbans were disturbing to him (let alone my bald head) even in the privacy of our own home.
My 9 year old daughter took my baldness and various head coverings in stride. She loved coming with me to the Cancer Clinic where free donated wigs and head coverings were there to try on and take home. She became my fashion co-ordinator, ensuring my hat matched my outfit.
She showed her discomfort about my cancer in other ways. For example, she would often feign sickness on my chemo days or at times I had oncology appointments. She knew I considered her too young to leave at home alone so she would often accompany me to these appointments. This was her way of exerting control of the situation. She seemed to think that if I went to a hospital alone, they would keep me and I would never return home.
Even though I strongly suspected her vague symptoms of illness were fake, it was clear that her distress levels were real. Taking her along to these appointments reduced her anxiety while insisting she attend school led to huge emotional meltdowns every time. It seemed the lesser of the two evils at the time although in hindsight, it would have been better for her education if I had a back-up person to send her to on those appointment days. My guess is that she would have recovered from her symptoms quickly and attended school to be with her friends. While neither child ever actively worried aloud in my presence that they were afraid I was going to die, 4 years later it is clear that was underlying their behaviour all along.
The second “c” word recommended to be included in any discussion of cancer with children is the word “contagious”. It is important that children know they will not catch cancer from you in the same way they could catch a cold. This encourages continued close contact like hugs and kisses, without the child worrying they too will become sick. My children seemed to readily understand this concept and were not afraid of physical contact with me.
The only times physical contact became a challenge were after the mastectomy and partial reconstruction, when I returned home sore with 3 drains hanging down. They had to be reminded that Mommy loved them but couldn’t tolerate a big bear hug quite yet. The other times physical contact became an issue were during chemo when they had a cold or flu and they were the contagious ones. They had to be reminded that my immune system was weak and if I caught their bug, I could get very sick. They seemed to accept that without question. I was the one who suffered guilt from not being able to care for them as a mother should when some bug got them down.
The third “c” word is “causation” in that Mommy’s cancer was not caused by anything her children did. The experts say that children under 13 are still in a developmental stage where they may blame themselves when something bad happens in the family. They may think that Mommy got cancer because I always nag her for new toys or because I don’t clean my room when she tells me to. I did reassure my children that they did not cause my cancer in any way. They both looked at me blankly as if the thought had never crossed their minds. That may be explainable by their knowledge that I had breast cancer 3 times before they were born. If they didn’t cause the first 3, why on earth would they think they caused the fourth cancer?
To help my children better understand my illness and their feelings about it, I brought home every age appropriate, “when your parent has cancer” book the Cancer Clinic had available. Although both enjoy reading, neither child showed any interest in the books even when I said we could look at them together. Maybe they thought we have to live with this stuff everyday, why would we want to read about it too?
Some cancer centers have programs specifically for children with parents living with cancer. We attended a half day program which the kids enjoyed very much as they saw others their own age living with a parent like myself. My daughter and I attended a Look Good, Feel Good program where we got to play around with and take home various cosmetics and wigs. My daughter decided I needed a purple wig to liven up my appearance so I would sometimes wear it at home for fun. This drove my son crazy as while he wanted me in a wig at all times, I was only supposed to wear wigs that were of the same color and style as my natural hair.
Trying to be a parent with cancer is challenging at best, although some of the sweetest memories of my life come from that period. Sometimes a simple caring gesture or word from one of my children would be enough to lift my mood for days on end. We did still manage to have birthday parties and a few fun outings during this year. Even at my sickest, when I was hospitalized for 4 days a week after my first chemo, the children got to spend one night with me in a private hospital room, a fun first for both of them.
Unfortunately, between the chemo brain and the PTSD, much of the year of Cancer 4 is a hazy blur to me. My children remember it better than I do. If I had to relive that experience again, I would seek out more support for both myself and the children. I also would have looked into one of the free camps for cancer families as we all needed a vacation after the previous year. They are just starting up in Canada but there are several established places in the US we might have qualified for had I known about them at the time.
While parenting with cancer can be tough going at times, especially for a single parent, it is doable as long as you can let go of your expectations of what perfect family life is supposed to look like. Sometimes a picnic on the floor altogether as a family can be more fun and memorable than a standard dinner at 5:00 gathered around the kitchen table. It’s your cancer, your family, and your lives together that determine how you best muddle through this difficult family time.
Sharon Greene January 3, 2015