Helping Children of Mothers With Breast Cancer

Lovey has breast cancer and Angel is her support person. Together they will fight the beast. As most people know, there are many nuances of a breast cancer diagnosis and one of the least discussed is the impact on the children. However, this topic is as important as any other and may be the most important for Lovey.

As you can imagine, a fear for every mom facing breast cancer is how her illness will affect her children, but her greatest fear is dying and leaving her children behind. Angel can provide an enormous relief to Lovey by stepping up to help the children during this challenging time. Working together, Lovey and Angel can create the most supportive environment possible for the children.

Lovey’s world has shattered, but daily life marches on. Besides the cancer, there are the simple practical matters. Although she may feel as if her life has come to a screeching halt, Lovey will be greatly relieved if life remained as normal as possible for her children. Enter Angel. Maybe the kids need rides to their soccer games or help with a science project that Lovey doesn’t have the energy to tackle. Maybe her daughter needs a dress for the prom and Lovey isn’t up for the outing.

Angel, get creative. If you are Lovey’s partner, decide where your time is better spent. If you think your son needs you to attend his school play, maybe you can recruit Lovey’s friend to accompany her to the chemo treatment. It’s a juggling game.

Beyond the practical daily matters, there’s the cancer. Someone reeling from a cancer diagnosis might need support during the discussion with the children. This is something Lovey’s partner or a close relative or friend could do with her.

Many families have excellent open lines of communication. Some don’t. I’ll use my own family as an example of one that didn’t. When I was growing up, we always had plenty of dinner conversation, but were lacking when it came time to talk about feelings. Unfortunately, my family wasn’t that unusual in this respect.

A cancer crisis is a crucial time to make sure the lines of communication with the children are very open. An example of what NOT to do came from breast cancer survivor, Pat, who found that a lack of communication resulted in tremendous stress for her daughter. She learned years after her diagnosis that her daughter had been afraid Pat was going to die. Unaware of her daughter’s feelings, Pat never provided any assurance that she would be okay. Checking the children’s understanding and probing for their questions may prevent undue anxiety. Professional help is also an option, depending on the need.

Discussions that allow children the opportunity to talk about their feelings and ask any questions are a must. I don’t mean a superficial conversation that goes something like this:

“How are you doing, Junior?”

“Fine.”

“Are you doing okay with your mom being sick?”

“Yeah.”

Checking Junior’s understanding requires a conversation that starts more like this: “It must be hard with your mom being sick. What are you finding to be the hardest part?” Any open-ended questions will help engage the children and help you check their understanding of what’s happening.

I had a discussion with my step-granddaughter, Brittany, who was nine years old at the time of my diagnosis. Her mother’s coworker, whom Brittany was familiar with, was fighting colon cancer and I assumed Brittany was aware of it. I chose to open my conversation on that topic.

“Do you know that your mom’s friend, Dana, has cancer?” I asked her.

“Yes.”

“Tell me what you know about cancer.”

“You die from it,” she said.

Well, that backfired on me, but I quickly redirected the conversation.

“Well, sometimes that’s true, but not always. Sometimes you can have surgery and they can cut out all the bad parts.” Then I switched gears. “I found out recently that I have breast cancer.”

That introduction led to the discussion of the surgery and how they were going to cut out the bad part. I did my best to be as open as possible without scaring her. I asked her to come to me with any questions she had, which she did on several occasions, making me grateful for that initial discussion.

It’s critical that someone has meaningful dialogue with the kids regarding how they are doing and answering any questions they may have. Acknowledging the fact that their mother is sick and giving them an outlet to express their thoughts and feelings is always helpful.

Even if Lovey has an excellent relationship with her children, they may be hesitant to tell her how scared they are, for example. Or they may be too nervous to ask her the tough question, that of “Are you going to die?” But they may be willing to ask Angel. They may need to ask.

by Shirley Alarie

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