The effects of the cancer journey extend to every member of the family, and children will often handle it differently than adults.
While celebrating Christmas this year, there was a moment that really surprised me when my youngest stepson said something about being sorry he wasn’t more help when I was going through cancer.
We had been talking about the pictures I had been gathering to make photo albums for each of my children. We had already shared some great laughs about moments I had captured through the years. When we were a newly formed family after I married their father, I had found a particular tree near our house where we gather annually to take a picture of them as they grew. Of course, it was my oldest stepson, the child who hated to have his picture taken, who was the most eager to get copies of all the photos.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer only my youngest stepson was still at home while he finished high school. His comment about not being there for me was one he had made before, many years ago. Now an adult with two almost-grown sons of his own, I was surprised he still thought about that time. But I also knew he had always been my sensitive child, easily hurt and fearful of what could happen in many circumstances.
I reassured him that it was in the past for me and that I knew that it was really hard for him at 16 when he was trying to separate from the family to go to college.
As I thought about it more, I began to recall how absent he was during that time. We had always been able to talk easily, but when I was diagnosed, he became elusive. We would begin to talk and then he would get a glimpse of me without my wig and off he would go, almost visibly running out of the house.
It reminded me how differently children handle cancer and his comment all these years later reminded me that as children grow, they may still be concerned about events in the past. Their reactions will depend on age, temperament and individual ability to absorb what is happening. Then as they grow they may see something completely different. I learned with my daughter, who was only a year old when I was diagnosed, that as she grew there would be age appropriate questions. Because of my continued involvement in breast cancer after my diagnosis, she grew up with the knowledge of my diagnosis.
I was made painfully aware of this when she was 9. One night in the bathtub out of nowhere she asked me if she was going to get breast cancer. I said she wasn’t because by the time she would be old enough they would have a cure. Well, she is 34 now and it hasn’t happened yet.
We ended Christmas with my son reassured that there was no reason to feel he had let me down somehow, and a reminder to my daughter not to miss her breast self-exam.