Guest blog: parenting with cancer (17 month old and 4 years old)
Natasha had a four year old son and seventeen month old daughter when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and here she explains how she talked to her children about her cancer diagnosis and generally managed her parenting while going through cancer.
When I was diagnosed with cancer in June 2017 my son had just turned four years old. My daughter was seventeen months old. It felt like the world was caving in.
Every time I looked at them, I was gripped by an all-consuming fear. I was terrified of leaving them; afraid of what the coming months would bring; and felt horrendous guilt for the sudden shift in their lives, the uncertainty that faced us all and the impact on them of what lay ahead. They were so small. My daughter still liked to sleep with me…….every night!! My son was only in pre-school.
We went to the pre-school graduation the weekend before my biopsy results were back and I watched his little friends sing their songs and graduate. I wondered would I be there the following year for his graduation. Never mind college graduations, I just wanted to make his pre-school ceremony!
What should we tell them?
And of course, the question of what to tell them. What should I say to these tiny little people whose Mum was suddenly sick? How should I tell them? What should I tell them? Should I tell them anything at all?
In the end, my husband and I decided we would tell the kids, well our son in particular, that I had breast cancer. My husband actually did the telling. I just couldn’t do it to be honest. He downloaded a book and at bedtime he sat down and told our baby boy that I had cancer.
He already knew that something was going on. There were visitors to the house. My Mum had barely left since my biopsy. I was going to hospital appointments, and Daddy was coming with me. People looked and sounded stressed. There was a lot of whispering when the kids were around. He knew something big was happening and he was worried.
My husband told him that Mammy’s breast (boobie) was sick, that it had something called ‘cancer’. He explained that because my boobie was sick I would have to go see the doctors a lot and would have to have some operations. The book he read was wonderful. It explained breast cancer in simplistic language that a child his age could understand. He knew that I would have an operation and that I would have to take some very strong medicine called chemo which would make my hair fall out. He also knew that I would be having treatment for a long time and would be tired and need to rest.
How we talked about cancer with the children
I never promised my son I would get better. Instead, I promised him I would work as hard as I possibly could with my doctors and that I would keep on doing my best to get better because I loved him so much. My daughter was 17 months old at diagnosis. We read her the book but she really didn’t understand as much. As time went on and she got bigger she understood more and knew I was sick and had to get “chemo medicine” and that I would be tired and feel ill sometimes.
We promised both our kids that no matter what there would always be someone to mind them, even if Daddy was working and I was in hospital. We told them we loved them both more than anything and that no matter what medicine I took or if I lost my hair, I was still Mammy and I would always love them and do everything I could to look after them.
Was it hard? Yes, to this day it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever faced as a parent. To them I am Mammy, I am their protector, washer of clothes, singer of silly songs, maker of dinner, provider of snacks. I did not want to tell them I was ill. I felt I was letting them down, that I wasn’t doing my job properly and had failed them by getting sick. However, I also wanted to be honest with them, to tell them what was happening in words they understood. I wanted them to know that when I went to hospital it was because I was working on getting BETTER, that when the doctors gave me my ‘chemo medicine’ it was to help me get back to being their Mammy.
Talking to them helped
Did telling them help? I think it did. My son understood I was sick. He knew I was getting medicine that would make me tired and that I would go bald. He knew it would go on for a while but that he would be looked after and so would his sister. It is hard to avoid the word cancer being used around the house and kids are very astute. My mum often says ‘Little rabbits, big ears’ and this is definitely the case! They might look like they are playing happily but guarantee they take in more than you think. Hence, we wanted to use the word cancer so it was not something to be feared. It became part of our language, as did chemo. When my hair fell out, I showed the kids and my son rubbed my head and told me I was still beautiful. He’s a little charmer!!
I continue on hormone treatment and have monthly zoladex injections. There have been times I have had to bring the kids with me for my shots, or they see me taking my meds in the morning and have asked what it’s for. I tell them it is to hopefully stop me getting cancer again. I’m three and a half years out from diagnosis now and would still occasionally have chats with my son in particular about that period in our lives. My daughter doesn’t remember much, but he does. I think being able to talk about it openly helps reassure him, plus if I get sick at all he isn’t concerned that the ‘sick boobie’ is back. This was our approach. It worked for us and I’m glad we chose to use the words cancer, chemo etc. The decision on what to tell your kids can be a tough one, but there is lots of advice and support available online from various cancer charities so don’t be afraid to reach out.