My doctor walked into the hospital room after my surgery, which was supposed to be an outpatient procedure to remove an ovarian cyst. Instead, it was ovarian cancer.
“I have a 4-year-old,” I said to her. “I can’t die now.”
I also had a 10- and 12-year-old, and all three of them were about to be thrown into a whirlwind of fear, uncertainty, and disruption to their normal lives.
Cancer is frightening. Add in kids, and the fear of leaving them, scarring them with visions of you suffering, raises your fear to a gut-wrenching level. Talk about “mommy guilt”!
So, if you find yourself, or someone you love, in this situation, do this…
Every child is unique. Every situation is different. Personalities and circumstances make giving you step-by-step directions impossible. I am also NOT a child psychologist. I am just a survivor who fumbled my way through this terrible situation. I learned a few things about helping my children and me get through my debilitating surgery, mommy’s tears, 15 months of chemo, recovery, and my continued anxiety that plagues every cancer survivor as they guard against a recurrence.
My husband and I did not hide things from our kids. I feel very strongly that kids are smart, and they easily pick up on tension and well-meaning lies. Without explanation, their bright minds create horrible scenarios. Plus, there was no way I could hide my tears, pain, and worry on a daily basis.
Without going into nitty gritty details, we explained that I had cancer and was going to fight it with drugs that would make me feel and look sick. That I’d lose my hair and not be able to do everything I had been doing. That friends and family would help us, and most importantly, we would not hide information from them when they asked.
The 4-Year-Old - K
- “Who will you play with in heaven if I’m not there with you, Mommy?”
This was the question presented to me in the middle of the night when I hobbled (damn neuropathy) to my sweet daughter when I heard her crying. It was my sleep-foggy brain that gave me an answer that actually seemed to help her.
“I guess I’ll play with other dead people,” I said.
Before you call me crazy, let me add that I followed that with, “So my grandma will be there, my dog from when I was little, and then there are all those people Mommy likes to write about (I write historical fiction).
“Oh,” she said and settled back down to sleep.
If I’d been fully awake, I doubt I’d have said that. What I found with K, being so young, is that she needed to have things explained in a way she could understand or else the unknown grew into nightmares. Knowing that I’d be with family and not alone, if the worst happened and I died, calmed her.
- “How will I find you in heaven if you go before me?”
We made a meeting place. “The tallest tree in heaven.” This concrete image for a young child helped her.
- “What do they do to you when you go to the hospital each week?”
I was having weekly infusions. K woke up numerous times crying about me having to “be hurt” each week. She didn’t understand when I tried to explain that the chemo room was nice. The solution came by chance, and I recommend it highly if your child worries about you being tortured.
At the annual survivor picnic at the facility, my nurse asked if K would like to see where Mommy sits. Without other patients inside (which can be frightening), K was able to take a short tour of the chemo ward and sit in one of the reclining chairs. Then I told her how the wonderful nurses covered me in warm blankets and brought me hot cocoa to drink if I wanted it. With that experience she could imagine where I was and that I was being taken care of. Her nightmares about me being tortured stopped.
The 10-Year-Old – L
- “Promise me you won’t die.”
My 10-year-old son knew that Mom didn’t lie. So he begged me to tell him I wouldn’t die. Of course, I could make no such promises just to calm him. Instead I said:
“This is the plan.” Then I sat with him and explained all the things I was doing to fight the cancer. What I could promise him was that I was never going to stop fighting to stay with him. I also promised that I would never lie to him.
- “Mom, are you crying because you’re scared or because it hurts?”
My son is very sensitive. I would hide in my room to cry, but somehow he always knew. So I was honest with him. “I’m uncomfortable and tired, but I haven’t received any bad news.”
Because a child noticing a parent hiding away to cry may make them believe you’ve gotten some terrible call that you’re going to die soon.
I started to use my showers as a safe crying place where my kids couldn’t hear me.
- Let your child’s teachers know what’s going on in the house. My son’s guidance counselor started having lunch with him once a week just to check in with him. K’s preschool teachers started taking her home after school with them to visit and play when I had chemo. Both of these helped tremendously.
The 12-Year-Old – S
My oldest daughter is an activist. It’s part of her nature from the start. When I was diagnosed, S dove right into raising money for ovarian cancer research. She made sea glass jewelry to sell. She wore teal clothes and painted her nails teal (the color for ovarian cancer). She handed out symptom cards to everyone she could.
This was her way of taking charge of a situation that was completely out of her control. When it comes to cancer, we are all thrown into uncontrollable situations. So any chance in which a patient or family member can take control is good for their emotional health.
Tasks a Child Can Do to Help
- Make colorful posters with positive affirmations to hang across from your bed. “I am living a long and healthy life.” “I feel strong and powerful.” “I am a warrior woman.”
- Hand out symptom cards to teachers, classmates for their moms, and even the checkout out lady at the grocery store.
- Find ways or make things to sell to raise money for cancer research – babysitting, car wash, craft items, etc.
- Put them in charge of wiping down doorknobs with sanitizing wipes and making sure people wash their hands when they come in the house.
- Helping with Mom chores.
- Giving hugs and covering Mom with a blanket if she’s sleeping on the couch.
Every child is different and will react in different ways to the stress of a parent battling cancer. Finding ways to empower them is an overall good way to help. Whether it’s giving them a place to meet you if you die, promising them you will not lie to them and will answer all their questions, or letting them start a campaign to educate people about your cancer, it’s all good if it helps them cope with the emotional roller coaster on which they’ve been thrown.
What isn’t good is lying to them, giving them promises you can’t keep, or hiding things. They are smart, and they will create even worse scenarios if they feel something is going on and you aren’t telling them. I am a firm believer in this.
Make them part of your team. Give them something they can do. Hug them and let them see you are human. You are also teaching them by example how to deal with adversity in life, by not hiding but by taking each punch in stride, enlisting help from others, and living an honest and full life.
Photo Credit: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / DigitalVision via Getty Images
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