Like a lightening bolt, this thought travels up from your toes, wraps around your heart, and ties up your lips. A cancer diagnosis is bad enough to digest. The idea of having to explain the unexplainable to young children is breathtakingly hard. And it’s certainly not a conversation that you’ve considered before the moment of your diagnosis.
And yet. You must.
I am fortunate that my son at the time of my diagnosis was too little to really understand. At a bit over one year old, he simply liked to rub my bald head and giggle. He didn’t care a wit that I was bald. But I certainly saw lots of other children at the park and in the grocery store that understood clearly that this bald women was different than everyone else. Because of those experiences, and because I am a writer by trade, I turned my attention post treatment to creating a book that would explain a cancer diagnosis of a loved one to young children. It’s called Nowhere Hair.
The following are a few ideas to consider during a time when words are often hard to find.
Let your children know that cancer is not contagious. Thankfully. They can give kisses and hold hands and hug just like always. In fact, there’s no better time to be loving.
Cancer didn’t happen because of something the child did. Not eating your peas didn’t cause mommy to get cancer. Or yelling at your little brother. Even though mom almost lost her mind last week when you had to be asked 12 times to not jump on the couch, and she yelled, this did not cause her to get cancer. Feeling guilty is a very real emotion that children can carry around after a diagnosis. Tell them straight out that nothing that they did, or said, caused you to get cancer.
Cancer is mysterious, even to adults. For young children, the technical details of cell mutation and environmental toxins will fall on deaf ears. Remember how you felt when your doctors started talking about technical and scientific aspects of your disease? It’s all a bit overwhelming. Err on the side of simplicity.
Cancer is an illness with dramatic external signs. Hair loss. Reduced energy levels. Surgery. You need to drive home the fact that even though cancer treatment can make you look sick, nothing can change how you feel about your children. Let them know they are still loved as much as always.
Children know something is up. Even if you believe saying nothing will effectively hide the truth from them, it won’t. They know you better than you think. And they have crazy good ears. And friends that ask hard and scary questions (even the little ones). Children who hear the truth from their parents upfront will have less anxiety, and that is one less thing you have to worry about.
Data dumps can be overwhelming. There is no need to tell your children everything all at once, especially the little ones. A sit-down “we’ve got something to tell you” serious discussion may take a hold of your own emotions, which might not be helpful. Small doses of information work well. The more normalized you can make your cancer diagnosis and treatment seem, the more they will accept it and move on. Really.
Like all important things, cancer treatment takes time. Young children don’t understand a mommy that needs to take 10 minutes for a private shower, let alone huge chunks of time for chemo or surgery or appointments. Daily life for you, and for them, will change. That is hard for everyone. But it can show your children that asking for and receiving help is one of the best lessons to learn in life. Reassure them that this treatment phase shall pass.
Breathe. Really. This is your life. You get fantastic wonderful yummy days and you get those days at the opposite end of the pendulum. Show your children that the hard things are part of life, and that approaching them as a family – together – is the best medicine.
Sue Glader is a writer, mother and breast cancer survivor living in Mill Valley, California. She is the author of Nowhere Hair, a children’s book that gently and also playfully explains life during chemo and addresses the biggest concerns of children ages 3-7. See the “sneak peak video” here and learn more (and also order copies) at www.NowhereHair.com. Her blog, Poking Around Life, can be found at www.SueGlader.wordpress.com. Join Nowhere Hair’s Beautifully Bald Initiative at www.facebook.com/NowhereHair, and pass on the message that being bald (whether from aelopecia, chemotherapy, or just bald and open due to a difficult personal experience) is a time for being bold, beautiful, and brave.