How to tell the kids you have breast cancer

There’s no shortage of euphemisms for describing cancer to children. But first you have to get comfortable with the concepts and the words in your mouth.

Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

A bad lump. The black spot. Little cells behaving badly.

There’s no shortage of euphemisms for describing cancer to children, regardless of age or stage. Before parents pick one, though, they need to make sure they have a good grasp of what they’re facing and what the treatment will entail.

“You have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help your children,” says Morgan Livingstone, a Toronto-based child life specialist who counsels kids and families coping with cancer. “When Mom gets the news she has cancer, it’s always, ‘What do I do to help my kids with this?’ But first you have to get comfortable with the concepts and the words in your mouth.”

There are plenty of kid-friendly books to help with this, including The Kids’ Guide to Mommy’s Breast Cancer by Karyn Stowe and Livingstone’s own Talking to Your Kids About Breast Cancer: A Guide for Parents, published by Rethink Breast Cancer. For more living resources visit rethinkbreastcancer.com.

Many families choose to summon someone like Livingstone. She shows up on doorsteps Mary Poppins-style, with a big bag of props—puppets with chemo lines, a Barbie-sized MRI table, dolls with Hickman lines that get real needles—and a mandate to educate kids on Mom’s cancer experience through play. For older kids, she has video games starring Captain Chemo, who teams with crew members named after some of the other cancer drugs used to fight the disease.

The key to helping kids cope well, Livingstone says, is offering consistent, age-appropriate, simple facts. “It’s better to share as much information as you can and be open and honest: Mom’s sick. It’s called cancer. She will have surgery. The doctor will make an opening and take out the part of her body that is sick.”

Toddlers and preschoolers are likely to be satisfied with bite-sized explanations that can be updated as treatment progresses, although be prepared to repeat them often, she says. Older kids are the ones who will ask tougher questions that ought to be answered with cautious honesty.

“They’re often going to ask, ‘Are you going to die?’ It’s hard for them to say it, and it’s hard for a mom to hear it,” Livingstone says. “The right response is, ‘Not right now. The doctors, nurses and I are focusing on getting better.’”

To lessen fears, Livingstone recommends being transparent with kids about changes to their routines, explaining who will care for them while mom is unwell, and being open about sad or angry feelings. “Tears without explanation can be pretty scary for kids…but try not to hide it. It’s OK to have these feelings. You can say, ‘I’m really sad. I’m waiting to hear from the doctor.’”

When it comes to the physical hurdles cancer causes, like the inability to hug kids while recovering from a mastectomy, Livingstone suggests new “special” traditions, like rubbing noses together or doing eyelash or big toe kisses. When one of Livingstone’s patients, Calgary mom Cindy Faas, was too sick to go to a Mother’s Day tea party at her daughter’s school, she attended via FaceTime. “They literally put me on a little tea cart the whole time. We found workarounds for situations where you just don’t want to miss things in your kids’ lives,” she says.

A version of this article appeared in the October 2016 issue with the headline, “I have cancer (and kids),” p. 78.

Read more:
Breast cancer: Fighting the effects as a family
I didn’t want to play this cancer lottery anymore
I thought my baby had a fever. It was cancer

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