Cancer. Undeniably the worst six-letter word I have ever heard spoken. When my mother whispered the phrase “I have cancer” through the international phone line, I was stunned. In shock. My whole world changed in a second. I was living abroad in Europe at the time, but in that moment, I didn’t want to be anywhere but back in my hometown of Vancouver, WA.
Not many people have a mom like mine. She had me at the age of 42, and her mission in life was to create a world of opportunity for me. I am an only child, so every ounce of energy was a selfless act that benefited me. When I found out she had cancer, it was like I could feel the earth shift, my stable footing felt like it had fallen out from under me, and even though I was in some incredibly amazing places experiencing the world right out of college, none of it mattered anymore. I needed to be home with her, to go through this thing called cancer, and try to be there in the way she always had been for me.
The shocking thing to both of us when going to her doctor’s visits was the lack of community or education that should have come with the diagnosis. It felt like we were automatically put into a system of medical appointments and processes, but nowhere along the way was there the support system that both of us, patient and support, desperately needed to help process our emotions, our fears, and even our hopes. I remember never wanting to talk about it. I was never offended if someone asked, but my answer was always the same, “She’s good.” In actuality, she wasn’t good. She was so sick, she was a ghost of her normal self for the weeks after her treatments. My dad and I mainly supported her by just silently being there with her. Our ability to process our emotions around my mother’s cancer battle was never through words or communication. I think we each found a way to cope, or to ignore, and always to silently hope and pray that she would be okay.
We managed as well as we could though the entire process, and thankfully came out of it on the other side - today, she continues to be in remission. Looking back on that time now though, I can see we were missing the emotional supports that anyone needs when facing an illness where there is so little certainty. I wish I knew what I know now about how to better manage stress and emotions, to know that all emotions are important to feel, no matter how hard they may hit in the moment. I’ve learned a lot since then, both from my own educational training, as well as from my best friend (and co-founder of Slumberkins, Kelly Oriard) who has studied and worked with families with young children while navigating the difficult realities of a cancer diagnosis in the family.
TALKING ABOUT CANCER WITH CHILDREN
I like to see good in everything... I learned this from my mom. So from this experience my hope is that I can at least provide some support for other families, specifically for children, when communicating that a family member has been diagnosed with cancer. Its not easy, but its important.
- Communicate. Try to stay calm and use a calm voice. It is okay to show feelings, but model how you take breaths or slow down if you need to when you are having big feelings.
- Be honest. Don’t shy away from using the word “cancer”. Explain facts so children don’t make up their own explanations. Truth and facts are often better than what children will make up in their minds, as they will often blame themselves. Answer questions honestly, if you don’t know the answer, tell them you don’t know but will find out and let them know.
- Inform. Let children know that there will be changes (hair loss, tiredness, weight loss). Outline what they can expect to change and who will be helping to take care of them.
- Reassure. Let children know that there was nothing they did to cause cancer. Reassure them there is no way to “catch cancer” and that they are safe and loved.
- Connect. Take time to connect with your child and, as always, give love and affection. Trust yourself, you are the expert on your child and you know how to support them better than anyone.
Almost everyone knows someone affected by a cancer. My hope is that by sharing my experience, it will bring comfort to those that may feel so alone and trapped in the process.