Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is Mommy Going to Die?

I translated this posting one of my favorite breast cancer blogs, written by French blogger and survivor Catherine Cerisey. You can read her the original post on her blog or follow her on Twitter at @cathcerisey. She also works on the team for the Maison du Cancer.

This is the question that every woman dreads hearing when she shares the news of her cancer. However, if you have children, the question comes up quickly. How do you tell them about the disease, explain something that is so terribly painful for us as adults? How about your own fear? How do you reassure them without communicating your own fears? How do you talk about things that we do not always know?

Some parents still believe that children won't suffer from what they don't know. A woman might get caught up in the guilt of not being able to care for her children temporarily, the anguish of not being there for them until adulthood. You may simply not want to cause them pain. But when cancer comes to your family, the anxiety is felt by the children, whatever their ages.

Your anxiety may echo in the children. For them, it might come out as feelings of abandonment, guilt, aggression, fear, grief ... And children's reactions will differ according to their age: a pre-verbal baby will feel the a mother’s stress, expressing anguish through agitation, outbursts of tears, or sleeping problems. Older children will show their anguish through games, drawings, or academic difficulties. Adolescents might engage in the excesses, insults and risky behavior of their peers, or, conversely, silence and depression.

All of the sudden, a mother may stop working and disappear for several days in the hospital, or, in the case of chemotherapy, suffer hair loss, feel tired or sick .... Children might lose their bearings, imagining that things are worse than they really are. They may feel guilty, believing they are the subject of secret meetings held by the adults behind their back. On the other hand, if they are confronted with the worst case, they should be prepared gently, taking the time, proceeding in stages. Without including others, outside people that do not support you might announce something in a brutal way.

Today, child psychologists and and psychiatrists agree: It is impossible to hide the situation.

That's fine, but how do you tell them?

At the most basic level, you must find the right moment, perhaps when the father or partner is there, or someone in the family who can speak for the mother if it gets too painful. Perhaps it could be the family doctor.

Of course, we do not speak the same way to a pre-verbal child, a young child or adolescent. We must assess what they can understand, to provide information tailored to their ages. For example we can say “shot” rather than “chemotherapy”; “x-rays” instead of “radiation therapy”, “doctor” instead of “oncologist.” And you can anticipate that hair loss can be terribly distressing for a child.

You must also know and accept your own limitations, answering "I do not know" to questions, to give an appropriate response after you ask the doctors or nurses yourself. Sometimes you have to pass the baton to the psychologists, teachers, sports teachers, school counselors who will have to handle situations that are outside your notice.

Finally, what about facing the possibility of death? Perhaps remind them, reassure them him that the doctors are doing everything possible to help you get better. If they have experienced cancer before, you can explain that not all cancers are fatal, as research progresses, and the disease a grandfather died of a few years ago could be cured now. Finding the words to say something that is feared is always difficult and in these cases even more so; again, the help of professionals can be invaluable.

Major cancer centers often have established consultations with social workers or discussion groups to help parents to talk about cancer with their children. Books are available to help explain the disease and its consequences with simple words.

You shouldn’t hesitate to use as much support as you need to get through this emotionally difficult time.

How did you tell your children about your cancer?


  1. My kids are college-age, and we were packing my son's things to move him into another apartment when I got the call. My daughter was standing next to me while I talked to the doctor and took notes. So she knew, then my son asked if I was going to be okay. I was still wondering if I was going to die, let alone explain it all to them. After surgery and seeing the pathology report, my oncologist recommended chemo as well as radiation. After praying and considering our options, we brought the kids home to discuss why I would be doing chemo and that we considered my chances pretty good. I was able to be upbeat and positive. We had them over every 2-3 weeks throughout treatments as we celebrated birthdays, holidays, and weekends together. We've given more info as we've progressed and learned more, and corrected things they didn't understand as we went along.

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