Navigating your breast cancer journey if you have children can be challenging. They will likely need support in dealing with the changes and concerns that come with having a parent with breast cancer. This may be difficult when you are not feeling yourself and are trying to go through the process yourself. The needs of your child will depend on their age and their personality. Children have different coping styles and you may notice behavioural changes. It is not easy to talk about serious illness with children of any age and you should not hesitate to seek professional help. Some of the things you and your family members can do to help children cope include the following:
- Be open and talk about cancer – provide age-appropriate answers that are honest and based on your children’s age and level of maturity
- Maintain their usual routine as much as possible and encourage them to keep spending time with friends, school and activities
- Inform their school and request that they contact you with any concerns about a change in behaviour
- Reassure your children that even though you have to spend more time and energy on your treatments that this does not mean you love them less
- Assure them that they will be taken care of while you are having treatment
- Be honest about your cancer, children can often fear the unknown and that makes it harder for them to cope
Prepare your children for change
Explaining what to expect beforehand can help them feel less frightened. You can discuss with them the treatment and side effects so they know what to expect. Make sure you talk about the important changes such as how the treatment may affect your appearance and how you feel such as whether your hair will fall out but will grow back or that you may feel tired for a while. Prepare your children for how the treatment may affect their normal routine such as that you may be unable to drive or that you may have someone come and live at home for a while to help. Keep your children up to date on your cancer, treatment and how it is going.
Visiting a Parent
If your child wants to come and visit while you are getting treatment should usually be supported to do so but they should be given permission to leave when they are ready if it gets overwhelming. Prepare them in advance for what hey will see in the hospital and what they will be allowed to do in the hospital room. Prepare them for how the parent will be, for example, if they are sleeping. Continually ask your child if they have questions so you can reassure them. After the visit, ask them about what they enjoyed the most, what they found difficult and what they found surprising. If it is not possible to visit their parent, encourage them to communicate in other ways such as cards, phone calls and drawings.
Helping your children understand
Explaining to your child about cancer can be overwhelming as you want to provide them with enough information to reassure them but you may be concerned that providing too much information can cause fear. Explaining to your child that you have an illness called cancer but it’s not like a cold when you feel bad for a few days. Explain that there are lots of different types of cancer. Some are more serious than others and some can grow fast or slow. Explain that many cancers are curable and can be treatable. Be open and honest with your child about your prognosis and whether the doctors think you are going to get better. Allow them to ask questions and be open/honest with them but speak at their level of maturity. Children often hear of people dying from cancer and this can be something that they are fearful to ask. They may be fearful that they cancer is contagious so reassure them that they cannot catch it by being close to the parent.
Coping with Change
Cancer brings a lot of changes and this can result in your children feeling anxious when they notice a parent’s health changing, experience a disruption to their routine of find it difficult to understand cancer. Most children and teens start to adapt better when they are told about what to expect, encouraged to talk about their concerns and have minimal disruption to their own routine. Provide support to your child whether that is through a children’s support group or individual counselling. Take time to focus on your child and provide them with information so they know what to expect. Also, encourage creative coping methods such as drawing, writing or reading stories about change.
Finding Ways to Feel Better
Although this is a challenging time for your family, there are many things you can do to support your family through this journey. Spending alone time with each of your children regularly makes them feel reassured and that they can talk to you about what is going on. Encourage them to express their feelings and concerns so that you can help them work through them. Encourage normal activity as much as possible and try to make sure that cancer is not something they have to think about all day. Giving them choices and allowing them to feel in control of certain situations such as whether they want to talk to a counsellor or whether they want to visit the hospital. Be real but keep a positive front for your children as much as possible. Lots of hugs and affection to your children to help them feel loved throughout the process.
Do not hesitate to ask for professional help throughout the process. There will be many people who have gone through this and will know how to navigate this with your family.
Books for Parents
Cancer in the Family: Helping Children Cope with a Parent’s Illness
How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness.
When a Parent has Cancer: A Guide to Caring for Your Children.
Helpful Websites Breast Cancer Action:
Books for Children
Vanishing Cookies: Doing OK When a Parent has Cancer.
Mom Has Cancer!
The Hope Tree: Kids Talk About Breast Cancer.
Nowhere Hair: Explains Your Cancer and Chemo To Kids