Talking to Children About Breast Cancer
Telling my oldest son that I had cancer was very, very hard.
Telling him that it had come back was even harder.
S. was seven years old when I was first diagnosed. A couple of weeks before my surgery (right before I took a leave from my job) we sat down with him and, following the cancer centre social worker’s advice, we explained that I had cancer, that he didn’t do anything to cause it and that I had very good doctors who were going to take really good care of me.
S. flew from my arms to the opposite side of the room. My spouse had the instinct to say, “and it’s not contagious.” He came back for a hug.
An acquaintance, who also happens to be a psychiatrist once shared with me her son’s response to being told of her own diagnosis of cervical cancer. He said nothing and went down to the basement. Her husband found him at his art table. He was cutting up a magazine. More specifically, he was cutting up pictures of women who looked like his mom. This boy is now a happy, well adjusted adult (and his mom is fine). He just needed to work through his anger.
We told S. that it was going to be a hard year and that I was going to have an operation and then start the treatment that would help make me better. Over the next few months we kept the lines of communication open and made sure that he had many opportunities to speak to his grandparents and other adults he trusted (he confided a lot in his maternal grandmother). And when he asked, we reassured him that I was not going to die.
When the cancer came back, I felt like I had lied to him. My desire to protect him remained fierce, even as I faced the pain and the fear of my own mortality.
I have been lucky, though. I responded very well to treatment and have had four clean scans over the last year. My prognosis is greatly improved and my son, now ten years old, is relaxed and happy.
We’ve had some bumpy times, though and have had to figure out how to respond to his needs (thankfully, we had some support in this regard). Here are some things we learned:
1. Keep the lines of communication open with the other adults in your child's life. In early spring (a few months after we'd learned the cancer had spread), we learned from the school principal that S. had had an anxiety attack (at home, he had seemed fine). He was terribly embarrassed and had not wanted her to tell me, but I am glad she did. We were both able to convey to him that it is normal to be scared.
The principal also helped me figure out that S. thought I might die at any moment, when in fact, we had already seen a slight response to chemotherapy and I was feeling much better. We had not shared that information with him.
2. Bring in the reinforcements. Don't be afraid to ask for help. More importantly, remind your kids that there are many adults in their lives that love them and who will be there for them, no matter what.
3. Stick to routines, as much as possible. What kids, particular kids who are a little older, want most is stability and the sense of ‘normalcy.' We have done our best to maintain regular family routines around house rules, homework, meal times, etc. Even chemo is part of this routine. The kids know that I will feel lousy the day I get treated but that by Saturday, I will be up and about and engaged in family activities. One of my happiest moments last summer, was when my oldest son exulted, "You look just like the other moms in the park!"
4. Get professional help. This was a really hard one for us. We thought it might help (I have personally experienced the benefits of therapy) but S. was adamantly opposed to the idea. And he seemed to be doing so well. Then late last fall (a year after my mets diagnosis), he broke his arm. It seems that while he had been coping really well, he lacked the resources to deal with any additional crises. His teachers suggested we take him to a psychologist. One of them wisely added, "He may resist but it is better to take him now than when he is an adult in crisis."
We interviewed several psychologists and chose a man with less experience with cancer than some but whom we thought would like and understand our quirky son. They got a long like a house on fire, spent six sessions drawing pictures and talking. After the last session (by which time the arm had healed) the therapist said to us, "He is getting what he needs." I cannot tell you, as a mother with cancer, how much those words meant to me.
More importantly, S. now has a therapist that he likes and trusts, to whom he can return, should any of us feel the need.
The other day, I overheard my son mentioning the therapist to a friend. The other child exclaimed, "You've seen a psychologist?"
"Yeah," replied S. It's normal."