When Suzanne was diagnosed with breast cancer, she didn’t tell her 2 young children. It wasn’t until she was having treatment that Suzanne and her husband sat down with their kids to explain what was happening. Telling her children brought an enormous sense of relief, and some unexpected questions and comments.
My children were only 5- and 6-years-old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband and I didn’t tell the boys at first because we didn’t want to frighten them. I didn’t want them to be scared that they were going to lose their mother because that was my fear. I was scared they were going to lose their mother.
In the weeks after my diagnosis, I was reluctant to use the word “cancer”. I didn’t want to accept that I had it; cancer was a word that didn’t flow out of my mouth easily.
When it was confirmed that I needed to have one breast removed, we knew we had to explain this to the kids. They thought that it was hilarious.
We asked the boys if they had any questions, reassuring them that they could ask me anything. The 2 little boys just sat there staring at us for a while, until the older one said: “I have a question.”
Expecting a question about dying or something else that frightened him, we were surprised by his query. “Did the doctor use scissors or a knife?”
My younger son later said to me: “Don’t worry, Mummy, it’s just like Nemo’s lucky fin.”
So that was about the depth of our conversations. They are very simple at that age; they don’t need too much information. Sometimes we can be guilty of imposing our own fears on our children.
During the 8 weeks or so before telling the boys about my diagnosis, I didn’t realise how much stress that was creating for me. The relief that I felt after talking to them was enormous. You just exhale and go “right, it’s all out in the open, let’s get on with this”.
During treatment, with the support of my mother and friends, we were able to keep the boys’ routine as normal as possible. Aside from school, we kept them busy with sport and enrolled them in art classes.
We thought a bit of art therapy might help at a time when there was so much uncertainty at home. They loved doing these classes – it was a nice, meditative thing for them to do. And the sport was terrific too, providing balance and using another aspect of their brain.
Questions arise later
The boys didn’t ask many questions about the cancer until many years later, when they were about 14 and 15. Some of their friends’ mothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and they started to ask more probing questions. It was only then that they realised the severity of it and how scary it must have been for me. So, it changed into a more mature conversation.
They wanted to know if the cancer was ever going to come back. You can’t say definitively that it is never going to come back. So, I would say to them: “It does come back in some people, but I feel in my heart that I have done what I have needed to do, and I will be living a long, happy life.”
And my youngest was right about my lucky fin. I am still here all these years later.
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
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