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Talking to Kids About Your Cancer

Sunday, February 27, 2011

©Brenda Coffee. All rights reserved.

Part of being a good parent is setting good examples about decision-making, problem solving and handling the difficult curves life throws at us. Talking to your kids about your cancer diagnosis is one of those curves. It’s hard enough for adults to process a diagnosis of cancer, so it’s not surprising that it’s even harder for children and teens to wrap their minds around such news. Even though what’s age appropriate information for a six-year-old may not be what we would share with a 13 or a 17-year-old, it’s important for us to talk as honestly as we can with our children. I know of two teens who’ve become angry, distrustful and disconnected as a result of their parent’s breast cancer diagnosis. <PREVIEWEND>

One teen is a 17-year-old boy, who, after discovering his parents had waited two weeks to tell him about his father’s breast cancer, became angry and withdrew from the family circle. He decided that if they’d kept something that important from him for two weeks, how could he trust them to honestly keep him informed as his father subsequently went through treatment? Nearly immediately the boy began running with the wrong crowd, coming home later and later, failing in school and disrespecting his parents. Another teen, who’s now an adult, still can’t forgive her parents for keeping her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis from her for two weeks. The response of these two teens is not unusual, neither is it unusual for a parent to wait until they have all the specifics about treatment, etc., before talking to their children. Like us, children and teens are afraid of what might happen to mom or dad, and ultimately, what might happen to them as a result of their parent’s illness. Anger and acting out is often a mask for a child’s fear and paralyzing sense of helplessness.

Cancer is frightening and disempowering for everyone, something so big and scary that even small children, on some level, sense this “boo-boo” may be beyond a doctor or a hospital’s power to fix it. As a result of cancer treatment, kids may see a profound change in mom or dad’s physical appearance. No wonder they experience a host of terrifying feelings they’re not comfortable expressing. In addition, kids are generally not mature enough to view a parent’s illness through the right filter so it’s easier for them to get angry, angry at us and angry at life for letting them down.

When I was 12, my father was diagnosed with cancer and died a year later. Not only did no one tell me about his illness, my mother didn’t even tell me he died! Talk about an elephant in the living room! It nearly ate us alive and it changed the fabric of our lives to this very day. I didn’t have time to act out or get angry, like the teens I’ve mentioned, because mother and I role reversed. I became the mother, and she became the daughter, a role we continue to maintain. Because of her dementia, I still haven’t told her that James died. Talk about history repeating itself, although mother’s not any more capable of dealing with James’ death than she was of dealing with my father’s death.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, perhaps you understand some of the reasons I started BreastCancerSisterhood.com. I know, all too well, the toll cancer takes on families; I know what it’s like to be the child, the caregiver and now the survivor. I wanted to reach out and empower each member of the family so they didn’t have to walk the same lonely and difficult road I’ve been down. If a friend or a family member has cancer, and kids, I hope you pass this website on and suggest some of BRENDA’S BLOGS along with videos from experts like Dr. Joel Marcus who offers advice for both parents and children.

Also, AMY’S BLOG may be the only support blog for children and teens. I strongly identify with Amy. She was 13 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon after, her parents separated, and Amy and her older sister became their mother’s primary caregiver. Today Amy's mom is healthy and thriving. Amy is 19, a college sophomore, a world traveler and the voice of experience, blogging about her own fears and anger when her mom was diagnosed, finding her new normal and how the experience has helped her grow as a person. Together, I hope we offer helpful voices in the midst of uncertainty about coping, coming together as a family and discovering strengths we didn’t know we had.





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