There is nothing easy about the day that you are sitting in your doctor’s office or get the call on the phone and learn that you have breast cancer. No matter how many donations you have made, events you have attended to raise awareness or the number of pink tee-shirts in your closet, actually hearing the words “you have cancer” can be an overwhelming shock. For parents, that reaction is even more extreme. Personal fear and panic quickly turn to how this is going to affect their children.
How children respond to most things depends a lot upon their age and level of understanding. For some parents, there is the temptation to shield especially young children from those things they believe will be upsetting or more than they should have to deal with. While well-intentioned, this is nearly always a mistake. Kids pick up on way more than most parents realize. Something as serious as breast cancer is impossible to hide. If children are left out about what is actually going on, they will come up with some explanation on their own, which will often be far worse than the truth.
Understanding Brings Reassurance
Your children get their cues from you. During difficult times you are going to react to everyone and everything around you differently. Help them cope with these changes by bringing them into the conversation, so that they understand why this is happening. The depth of explanation and the language you use will change as appropriate but these are some suggestions that many have found helpful:
- Talk to them. Find out what they know about breast cancer and correct anything that is not accurate. Describe the process and what to expect from your treatment. Let them know that there may be difficult days for you, physically and emotionally. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about what they are feeling.
- Cancer is not contagious. It’s amazing sometimes to learn what children have been thinking but too afraid to admit. Make sure that they know that no one else, including them, can catch cancer and that it’s still safe to touch and hug.
- Not their fault. Children tend to be pretty self-centered and experience the world as revolving around them. Just like with divorce, without ever telling anyone, children often assume the burden of responsibility when something bad happens. Somehow, it must be their fault. It is important to be proactive in reassuring them that this is not true, because they may not ever express it on their own.
- Be open with the “C” word. Diffuse a lot of the fear and anxiety by talking openly and matter-of-factly about cancer. If they see that this is something you are facing openly and with confidence, then they will take those cues and run with them. Talk to them about how they might share what is happening with their friends. Have conversations with teachers and other parents so that your children can feel comfortable talking to them, also.
- Remind them they are loved. Battling breast cancer requires a lot of time, effort and focus. Sometimes there won’t be a lot left over for the kind of interactions with your children as before your diagnosis. Children may see this as being forgotten or even neglected. But, children are also amazingly resilient. Simply explaining that you still love them and that other family members will help make sure that their needs are taken care of will go a long way to making them feel safe.
Breast cancer is never a good thing, but even the darkest clouds can have that proverbial silver lining. Going through an experience like this can actually bring parents and children closer together and be an invaluable teaching opportunity about priorities and the strength of family.