When Circle of Moms member Christina was diagnosed with ovarian cancer just after her 36th birthday, her biggest concern was protecting her toddler-aged son during her treatment and recovery. "I feel like my son lost his mommy because I was too tired to play and he couldn’t understand. Because of frequent hospitalizations, he’s always afraid when I go somewhere." Now in remission, Christina feels blessed that she's alive and well and that her son is okay, but she wishes she had known more at the time about how to help him cope with the upheaval.
Cancer is bad news. It’s frightening for moms to even think about it, much less to consider the impact on their kids. Here, Circle of Moms members share some lessons on how to help kids through the emotional turmoil of having a sick parent, and ideas for easing the impact on the entire family.
1. Maintain Everyday Rituals
There’s no question that life as they knew it is disrupted when a parent is coping with cancer. That is why Carey W. stress that it is important for families to try to spend as much time together doing normal things like dinner and watching TV. "We make sure to eat meals together, no TV or toys at the table, we do homework as a family, we have Friday movie night, my son is in T-Ball, we all go to every game. The togetherness, no matter how sick I feel, has made the largest change in everyone’s behavior," says a 36 year-old member who recently underwent treatment for breast cancer.
Another member, Angela B., whose youngest was only two when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, also tried to keep everyday rituals intact even though she was in the hospital. "It has not been easy to go through surgery and chemo with little ones, but we did it," she shares. "I tried to be as positive as possible yet realistic when it came to my illness. I found the hospital stays to be the hardest on my kids. They missed not having me home at bedtime. We coped by having them visit me and I did my best to read the stories to them. I also called them before bed to say good night."
2. Be Truthful — Within Reason
It’s extremely understandable that a mom’s diagnosis of cancer can be a scary thing for kids, Angela adds. That’s why she says she made every effort to tell her older children – ages nine and 12, the truth about her cancer. "They wanted to know up front if I was going to die and I was as honest as I could be," she says. "I simply told them that no one knows for sure when they are going to die. The one promise I made was that if I became sicker or if it was to spread, I would tell them as soon as I knew.” She also helped her children cope with the truth by connecting them with a counselor so that they could process their feelings.
Nichole R. was similarly upfront with her three-year-old. “I've taken the approach of providing Julia with as much information as I think she needs, and no more,” she says. “I haven't hidden my body from her at all. I usually wear a scarf on my head for warmth, but Julia sometimes takes it off me. Prior to the mastectomy, I explained that I have something called cancer in my breast that's making me sick and that the doctor would take it out. I told her I would have a sore on my chest and wouldn't be able to pick her up for a little while, but that I would still be able to give her lots of hugs.”
Not every mom coping with cancer believes in complete disclosure. Tammy S. cautions that much depends on a child's age. As she explains, "I didn't think it was right to burden [my children] when they were younger with my problem. Kids have so many other worries and I didn't want my health issue to be one more worry on their mind."
Still, most moms, including mother of five Yvette B., endorse the need for openness: "You need to let your kids know the truth. A lot of emotions are going in different directions, take it one step at a time, but don't keep them out of the loop."
3. Find Ways to Support Your Kids Emotionally
From getting counseling for your children to have a safe place to deal with their difficult emotions to protecting them from the gruesome details, moms really need to make a concerted effort to be aware of the emotional roller coaster their kids are going through say Amy B. "Your kids could talk to a counselor (like a family cancer counselor)," she recommends. "Cancer has a huge effect on the whole family. I lost my sister to cancer three years ago, and it has changed my whole family." Angie B. agrees, suggesting that moms get their kids into therapy (even if they seem alright) just to make sure they are okay.
It's also important to maximize all the time you have with your kids, adds Angela F. "I lived it up with the kids, made it to everything important, celebrated every day," she says.
Finally, Jany B. points out that part of the everyday journey of a parent dealing with cancer is continually reassuring your kids. "Just keep telling them how much you love them and let them know how you feel," she says. "It's good for our children to see that we are strong for them, but we too are afraid."
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