I was diagnosed with cancer when my boys were 5 and 7. It is exquisitely painful to watch your children be confronted with a tremendous loss of innocence at such a young age, while at the same time breathtaking and inspiring to watch how brave they are in the face of uncertainty. For example:
When I initially was diagnosed, we waited to understand the treatment plan before telling them what was happening. I was concerned because they both knew that my own mother had died from breast cancer before they were born, so I wanted to protect them from that fear as much as possible. Once it became clear that chemotherapy was going to cause me to lose my hair completely, we knew that we would have to discuss the side effects of my new medicine, but I was still hoping to protect them from the “C” word.
We sat them down to explain the side effects, and the first question out of my oldest son’s mouth was- “do you have cancer?” Initially I was evasive, saying it was something like that. However, when he asked me the same question 6 weeks later, I knew that he needed to hear it. Telling the boys helped us all, making it easier to undergo the 5 months of chemo prior to surgery.
It opened the door for them to express their worries and fears. They needed to know if I would die, when I was in pain, to express their anger at the cancer. My youngest took it upon himself to tell anyone who seemed curious, “This is my mom, she’s bald”. He was also very proud to tell people when my hair was starting to grow again.
The day before the double mastectomy, the kids had a half-day of school. This meant that not only was I trying to squeeze in a full day of work seeing clients in my private practice, but I also had to juggle getting home in time to take them off the bus, take them with me for the plastic surgeon to draw the surgery lines on my body, and pick up my husband from his work (since we only had one car) so that he could drop me back off at work to finish meeting with clients. It was one of those days where if any of the timing were to go off, we would be in trouble.
At the end of the appointment, my amazing plastic surgeon turned to the boys and asked them if they had any questions for her. My oldest asked with a strained voice “Will she die?” and my youngest told her, while looking her straight in the eye, “If she dies, I will kill you.” While of course we don’t condone violence, to watch them be vulnerable, brave, protective and honest about their feelings made me so proud of them. I knew that they worried about me dying throughout the treatment process, and I was really impressed with the way that they were able to talk about it.
So if you have children and you are beginning this process, be prepared that they are quite intuitive. Keep it as simple as possible, allow their questions to guide you as to what they are prepared to hear and need to understand. Honesty with them will allow them to be more open with their feelings, as well as to keep the sacred trust intact. We were able to start attending a support group for families with critically ill members at the Center for Grieving Children in Maine, http://www.cgcmaine.org/, which was a blessing for all of us. Hopefully there is a program in your area as well.
– Stephanie McLeod-Estevez, LCPC, is an art therapist and breast cancer survivor. She began Creative Transformations to help others who are healing from a life threatening illness or injury. Subscribe now to the weekly blog and learn more about the individual sessions, offered in person and via the Internet, by visiting our website www.creative-transformations.com.