Children are pretty perceptive little things, with in-built radars constantly tuned in to the goings on around them. Even slight deviations away from their usual experience of the world are enough to pique their curiosity.
So it was last year on the day of my cancer diagnosis, that without a word of explanation, each of my children knew ‘something was up’.
It started with the increased flow of visitors, as the supportive force of my family swept into action and rallied around Jay and I as we waited for scary test results.
“Why is everyone here?” asked our eight year-old.
“They want to see us.”
“Yes, but why are they all here and not going home?”
“Well…they’re here to hang out with us.”
From the initial appointment with my GP and subsequent mammogram and ultrasound, to having my breast surgeon give us the final diagnosis, it took four days. These were the longest, most torturous days I have ever experienced. In those four days, we were pitched through a maelstrom of shock and disbelief, feeling terrified, grief-stricken and somehow hopeful that it was all a mere dream. Kids don’t miss stuff like that, no matter how many times you flash them a brave smile.
We felt awful keeping everything a secret, but we had to wait for the final diagnosis before knowing exactly what lay ahead for me. I needed to have CT and Bone scans to determine whether my breast cancer was operable or not. Once cancer has metastasised elsewhere in the body, it is considered inoperable, and so systemic treatment, like chemotherapy takes precedence. If breast cancer is more localised, it will be surgically removed before chemotherapy begins.
As it turned out, while my cancer had invaded many surrounding lymph nodes, it had not spread to distant organs. This was a big relief, but it meant I would need mastectomy surgery immediately and would be in hospital for a week.
Once we were armed with all the information, the next tricky hurdle we faced was telling our kids. We were pretty certain we needed to be upfront and open with them. The last thing we wanted was for them to hear stuff from other children in the schoolyard. Jay and I spent hours upon hours despairing over it, discussing each aspect of it and planning exactly how we would approach it.
- How do we tell our children about cancer in a way that informs but does not frighten?
- How do we convey the gravity of my illness when I do not look sick?
- How do we give answers to questions that not even the experts know?
- And most of all, how do we explain it all without breaking down mid-sentence?
In the end we enlisted the guidance of a child psychologist friend who helped us formulate a plan. We decided to keep our explanations simple and straight forward and then let each child’s questions dictate the rest. We promised to answer all their questions as best as we could, encouraged them to ask as much as they wanted to know, whenever they wished, and assured them that we loved talking to them about it.
Each of them reacted slightly differently, and wanted varying degrees of information about my breast cancer, but all of them wanted confirmation that the important things in their life were going to carry on as normal: things as simple as, ‘Who’s going to take me to school and pick me up?’
Since our initial discussions with our kids, my breast cancer has come up in conversation quite regularly and sometimes at quite inopportune times, like the supermarket, or in front of their teacher and other parents at school pick-up time. While their comments have sometimes made other people around us squirm, they do not faze me in the slightest. I don’t care when or where it happens, I will answer their questions with honesty and clarity.
Here are some of the more memorable things they have come up with over the past couple of months:
- formulating a song about ‘the bump in mum’s boob’
- asking to see and touch my scars
- comparing their bodies to mine
- announcing my diagnosis to people at the supermarket checkout
- pointing out bald people as potential chemo patients when we’re out an about
- checking my hair and asking when it will fall out
- covering me with affectionate, gentle kisses when I come home from hospital
- bringing me snacks and drinks of water after chemo
- declaring a wish that I ‘didn’t have Breast Cancer’
- telling their teacher that ‘mummy doesn’t have ‘breasters’ anymore’
- sewing me a special armpit pillow at school, in free-time
- creating a box of ‘worry men’ out of Lego minifigs that they keep on their bed
- asking if I’ll be sick forever, or have chemotherapy forever
- asking if I’m better yet
On the whole I feel like our children are coping pretty well. We try to maintain a sense of normalcy wherever possible, and prepare them ahead of time if things are going to change. The great thing about children is that they don’t tend to fixate on things for long periods. If fears or worries crop up, we have a chat about them and generally that is enough.
A friend of our family also sent Jay and I a wonderful book titled, ‘My Mum Has Breast Cancer: A Family’s Cancer Journey’, written by a mother, Lisa Sewards and her young son Harrison, as Lisa went through cancer treatment. While I am yet to be able to read it cover to cover without getting teary, it has served as a great source of information aimed at just the right level for young children. If your family is going through a similar experience, or you know a family who is, I highly recommend it.
I get so sad sometimes, thinking that children should be free from big worries and anxieties through childhood, and that our children don’t deserve to have cancer come and wreck that innocence. We are trying so hard to be open with them, but at the same time shield them from the utterly ugly, scary side of my diagnosis. My only hope is that somehow, in some way, they will grow in resilience and strength throughout this journey, and that this whole experience of breast cancer can in fact give a little back to us, rather than just take, take, take.
12 thoughts on “Kid Stuff”
Read all of this and found it fascinating. You guys have been so thorough. Love the arm pit pillow and worry men. X
Trying our best, that’s all Bri. Doing what we think is right, and probably getting it wrong a lot of the time! But yes, the armpit pillow was a beautiful moment, as were the worry men – heartbreakingly so. xx
Oh Kate, you might not be able to read Lisa’s book without getting teary, but I can’t read your brilliant, heartfelt words without tears. You and Jay are utterly amazing, as are your children. Thank you so much for sharing. May your gorgeous children have the dignity and resilience and humour you have. Biggest of hugs to you. Ps, I think I’m going to get some minifigs out of the lego box 🙂
Oh Karen, thank you so much. Your comment made my day x
Very insightful Kate. You write so very well in a way that describes the situation that leaves me with no unanswered questions. Thinking of you and the family. Love from Mike and Jan
Many thanks Mike. I really appreciate all your encouragement.
What difficult conversations to have with your children. And amazing how kids are so resilient and can take in their stride things that knock us adults for six. Due in huge part to both your and Jay’s honesty, openness and huge love for them. Love reading your thoughts Kate xxx
It hasn’t been easy, Sal. But life throws tricky moments into the mix sometimes, and we’ve just had to make do. Thanks for your lovely comment. xx
Thanks Kate-I am moved and impressed by your willingness and ability to put the needs of your children at the forefront of your dealings with them about the cancer that has invaded your lives. I believe (and agree with you) that from such painful and difficult experiences resilience and courage grow. I remember my father, a very wise man, saying to me at one such painful time in my life “one thing I would say to you Trina (as he called me) don’t make decisions based on fear” and that is what you are doing. You are not letting the fear of telling it honestly and the possible difficult feelings it will raise, stop you. You are teaching your children that they can talk to you about anything, that you won’t freak out, or brush them aside or make them feel guilty somehow that they have done something wrong. This is a huge gift to them and they are learning that they can talk to you about such confronting things as sex and drugs and painful subjects such as grief and death. You are giving them the gift of knowing that that whatever happens, they can cope, and so can you. You are teaching them not to be afraid of painful feelings or of life.
It is rare for parents to be able to give their children this gift-well done for your insight, courage and strength (and I also know that you will falter sometimes- this also teaches them to forgive themselves and others) much love, Catriona xx
We are just trying to things the very best way we can. We don’t always get it right, but who does?! Thank you for affirming all those positive things you believe we are teaching our children throughout this process. You give me great hope!
It’s amazing how kids can take it easier than adults some times. My niece and nephew are 5 and 7 and I was so worried about what to say when they saw me without hair the first time (I wore wigs for a while around them). I wanted to let them know I’d be sick, get better, and it wasn’t something they should worry about for themselves or their parents. Then one day they came home and surprised me so my wig was off and didn’t react at all. They were much more interested in playing soccer in the backyard. Obviously not the same as having an aunt sick as their Mom. My niece also loves that she knows I’m wearing wigs, she’s 5 and thinks it’s a special secret she’s in on. Her smiles when she whispers about it to me get me every time.
Hi Jenna, Yes they’re pretty amazing little creatures. They’ve taken so much in their stride over the last few months, the beautiful things. Much more than I thought they would.