I heard this term recently, in reference to our loved ones, who are by our side (in a helpful way- or not) as we go through the process of being diagnosed and treated for cancer.  It resonated with me, in part because of the impact my mom’s cancer had on me personally, but also for the impact I observed on my family, friends, and extended community.

For example, recently my children had the opportunity to meet my oncologist in person, when we were at our local Tri for a Cure event.  My oncologist is a warm and genuine person, and I was so excited to have the opportunity to introduce her to my children.  To have two very important sides of my life to meet one another.  Initially, the boys were shy and reserved, which was not a surprise per se, but when I asked them about what they thought of meeting her, I was surprised by what I heard.

It was scary…

On the surface, the interaction was pretty normal.  They were shy and then she made a joke and they relaxed a bit and talked briefly.  But when they told me how they were really feeling, it was a wake up call that the trauma of having their mom go through cancer was still very real.  In their minds, my oncologist was not the person who saved my life, she was the person who represented the fact that I could have died.

As a mom, I want to protect them from scary experiences, I want to protect them from still being scared that I will die.  We are fortunate that overall the boys are functioning pretty normally, but this is a reminder that it is important to continue to be tender with them and to keep in mind that as well as I know them, I do not always know what is driving their reactions to things.

The only thing I can do, is continue to work on being a safe person for them to share their thoughts and feelings, and to get them help when needed.  Some of the signs that indicate that you may want to bring your child to a therapist (or to engage in family therapy) are:

  • they are having difficult at home, in school and beyond
  • they are isolating from friends
  • they are regressing
  • they are incredibly sad and worried
  • their sleeping habits or appetite has changed
  • they have developed self destructive behaviors
  • they talk about death, or thinks about it repeatedly

If you have faced a life threatening illness, it is not uncommon to see the behaviors listed above, especially talking about death.  It’s normal, but if the behaviors persist, then it is a sign that your child is struggling to manage the stress that a significant illness brings.

It is important to communicate with all of the important adults in the child’s life (teachers, guidance counselors, close friends’ parents, their primary care doctor, and so forth) and then look for resources in the community- social workers connected to the oncology practice, non-profit cancer centers that offer child and family services, outpatient mental health providers, and so forth.

Our kids are not the only co-survivors in our life, but frequently they are the ones we focus upon first.  I will discuss the impact on our other co-survivors soon.  Until then…

– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor, who works as an oncology counselor at the Dempsey Center. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Through Creative Transformations, Stephanie works with people in person and online to offer cancer coaching, a DIY Individual Art Therapy program to enhance any healing work you are undertaking; workshops; and this weekly blog. Sign up today so you never miss one by visiting our website, Creative Transformations, where you will also find the links to our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages.