Two things I have learned as a parent with cancer:
- Keeping the lines of communication open, in a way that is appropriate for the age and personality of your child, is extremely important
- Kids are extremely resilient.
When it comes to talking to kids about cancer, I do not believe that there is a ‘one size fits all’ approach. I think each of us needs to figure out what will best meet the needs of each individual child (and my own approach with each of my two children has of necessity been quite different).
I do know some mothers go to great lengths to protect their children from the knowledge that they have cancer. This is not an approach that could ever work for me, as I am convinced that children notice much more than we think they do and that the fears which remain unaddressed are the hardest to overcome.
I once spoke to a woman who had worn a wig at all times during treatment so as not to frighten her children. And she never talked to them about cancer or the side effects she was experiencing. When, a year or two later, one of her daughters began to act out (usually in anger and always directed at her mother) this woman wondered if she had done her a disservice by trying to protect her so completely.
When I was first diagnosed, in early 2006, my boys were 2 and 7. When I found out about the metastasis in November of that year, they were 3 and 8. They are now 5 and 10, healthy and well adjusted, even though it is unlikely either of them can remember a time when their mother did not have cancer.
Initially, we simply told my younger son that Mama was going to be taking some very strong medicine that would make me feel bad for a little while but that would help me feel healthy and strong (and my spouse repeated this mantra every time we had to explain why he couldn’t come and jump on the bed as I recovered from chemo).
We also had a head shaving party, shortly after I first started chemo, with both my kids in attendance. They hugged me and said good bye to my hair, watched me get my head shaved and then each gave a kiss to my newly bald head. It was all very lovely and spontaneous, and I think it made it easier for of us to face the changes being wrought by treatment.
D., my youngest son, has been the most unaffected by my cancer. He is now very understanding when I am not feeling well (in the days following each treatment). He sometimes finds it frustrating that I cannot read to him or put him to bed some nights but most of the time, he accepts that, for just a few days, I need rest and quiet. And he knows that each week end, I will once again be able to run and play.
Sometimes, when he is anticipating an event at which he would like me to participate, D. asks if I am going to be “feeling well.” He surprised me the other day by asking if I was going to be absent from dinner that evening because I was going to be “getting chemo.” And he knows that I have only one breast and when he asked why, I told him that I had an operation to remove it and take the bad sickness out.