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Mom's Cancer Diagnosis: Tips for Families With Young Children

My children are intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. In this case, telling the truth is not always in their best interest.
PUBLISHED February 26, 2016
Kate Beland does not believe that cancer defines her. She is an athlete, a marathoner, a mother, a wife and a writer. When she is not conducting her three-ring circus act, she is busy kicking late stage melanoma's butt and keeping herself sane through her writing and running: https://www.facebook.com/runningandcancer/ or www.runliftbreathe.blogspot.com

I had to stay home sick with the flu while my husband took on the role by himself to get all the girls to the mountain for training. At the team lodge, like every weekend, all the ski families were getting booted up, helmets flying around, hand warmers opening up. The buzz of the usual early Saturday morning as a ski family was organized chaos. Out of nowhere, my 7-year-old started to cry and asked my husband: "Is mommy going to die?" 

He told me this later that night in the privacy of our bedroom door. My heart broke just a little more.

This is what cancer does, and it is not fair. My child does not deserve this. Cancer put that fear in her head and stole that piece of her world where she believes her parents are invincible and will live forever. That is what keeps me awake some nights just thinking, dreaming and wishing I could take this whole six months away and go back to our lives BC (before cancer).

I spent my entire diagnosis, treatment and recovery acting just "fine." We hid as much as we could. I cried in bathrooms when no one was home when I was in pain. I cried behind sunglasses in my car by myself when I was scared. But they knew. My children, as unknowing, naïve and protected as they may have been, knew. There is no guarantee.

That same 7-year-old just found out that a teacher in her classroom will be away for a few months because she is sick. She has breast cancer, though these details were not shared with the class of second graders. But I wonder-- does my child know what's really going on?

All families deal with such a diagnosis in different ways. For us, I realize we found a method that worked for us. My children are intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive. In this case, telling the truth is not always in their best interest. So this is how our family dealt with a very scary and very real cancer diagnosis, surgeries, treatment and ongoing recovery.

1. Rip off the Band-Aid in the moment:  And by this, I mean give as little details as possible until after the fact. My first surgery to remove the tumor from my hip and remove the sentinel lymph node took almost three hours. We told my children I had a doctor's appointment and that Grandma and Papa would pick them up and take them out for ice cream and a fun afternoon after school. There was no way they needed to be sitting in school worrying about me.

When they did come home, and saw me in bed where I was to stay while I healed covered in ice bags, we explained that I did, in fact, have surgery but it went well. I'm not sure we even mentioned the word cancer even though we knew it already. We kept it simple. The doctors just needed to remove something that didn't belong in mommy's body. This followed with lots of hugs, more ice cream and reassurance that I was fine but sure could use some help around the house while I healed.

2. Continue with your normalcy: After surgery, this was a hard one to pull off even with that first "day surgery." My routine and ritual was to get up and run more than seven miles every day, and then drop girls off for school and go to work, pick girls up from school after work and get them to practices, etc. Most of this, I could not do even after that "simple" day surgery. A few days after that surgery, for my girls and perhaps, my own convincing, I limped my way to a lacrosse game or two that weekend and played "normal." They needed this, and this much I could do.

3. Up against the wall, give as little detail as possible: After my first surgery, it was found that not only did I have a sizable cancerous tumor removed, but my sentinel lymph node was positive for cancer as well (the cancer had metastasized beyond the tumor). I was sent to the cancer specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital for my next surgery and further diagnosis. We kept the details minimal. We confirmed with the girls' that yes, I had some cancer removed from my body. Yes, I am so fortunate to have the best doctors in the world only an hour away. "You mean the very best?" my 11-year-old would ask. "Yes, the best, sweetheart."

I was going to stay down in Boston for a surgery by the very best cancer doctors in the world. "They wanted to make sure they got all the cancer out because that is how good they are. They are very careful — kind of like double and triple checking your homework." This perhaps was the most important and biggest lie we had to tell, but it was critical to my children's well-being. They needed to believe this was just a precaution and that I would be just fine, even if the truth was that we had no idea what was going to happen next. 

4. One step at a time: Basically, this is the general principle of how we approached telling our girls, and how we continue on my recovery. We would tell them information on a needs-only basis. When I was so sick on the floor after surgery and hospital stay, we hid that from them. "Mom's not feeling well, probably just something she ate."

We still continue an as-needs basis of information. They do not need to know that I get bloodwork done to see if the cancer has come back. They do not know that I have scans every three months because sometimes cancer cells do break off and pop up some place else. They only know that I get double- and triple-checked as a part of my recovery plan, part of my N.E.D. protocol, per the best doctors in the world.

I don't know if everyone would agree with our approach, but for our family, it works. We can only handle what's right in front of us, and to go any further than that is just too much information.

There are days that I am so angry at this disease, not because of the scars it has left on me, but I worry about the scars it will leave on my children. My only comfort is that I love them so much, and I feel blessed that I can still easily continue to kiss away their boo-boos and tell them that everything is going to be just fine.

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