October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
We hope that Breast Cancer Awareness Month for you is just a friendly reminder to get your mammogram! But we also wanted to share some thoughts that we hope are helpful to support the ones who are supporting those who are ill, with a particular focus on talking to children. Every person’s cancer journey is different and unique to them. When in doubt, always ask what someone needs and listen to their response. Let them tell you how they feel–don’t project how YOU would feel onto them. This is true for children as well.
Here are some actions that may be helpful. They are geared to patients, loved ones and their children, although you may also find insights for being a good friend.
Putting a Team Together
“As Americans, we do not like to ask for help,” says Dr. Margo Jacquot, founder and Chief Care Officer at The Juniper Center. “But in times of crisis, you absolutely must. You need your tribe, your child needs your tribe,” says Margo. Spouses and partners can brainstorm jointly to put this team together. Or one or the other can take over. Do what works for your family. Who are the people you can count on in an emergency? Which neighbor can you call for a last-minute pick-up from soccer practice if a doctor’s appointment runs late? Family is wonderful and may be part of the team, but they also may be far away.
So many people want to help and don’t know what to do. Ask. If someone says no then ask someone else. Your team is those who are in place to support the family, even when you don’t know what to expect. “Parents can’t be everything to their kids ever, but especially when sick. Ask for help,” adds Margo.
Get Guidance from Others in the Child’s Life
For some, a cancer diagnosis is something they want to keep private—perhaps to not be a burden, or out of concern how others will view them. That is a very personal decision. However, if comfortable it can be helpful to let others involved in your child’s life know what is going on in the family. Many schools offer groups for children in similar situations or drop-in times with a school social worker for a child to have someone to talk to.
It’s also good for the school to know what’s going on at home to support the child’s learning and give empathy and context, for example, if there are changes in grades or behavior. If you belong to a religious institution, clergy can also be a wonderful source of guidance. Think through their coaches, teachers, babysitters, friends’ parents. And how wonderful to recognize in the process how many people love your children!
Tell Children the Age-Appropriate Truth
“Children need people to tell them as much truth as they can handle, depending on their age,” says Margo. And because each of your children is different—in age, temperament, and personality–you may want to sit with each and tell them separately. There are plenty of guides and books (see resources below) that will help you craft your message. And if you get it wrong, do it again.
When Cheryl (not her real name), a breast cancer survivor, was first diagnosed, she and her spouse decided that he would tell their then 14-year-old son. Out of dad’s own understandable fear, however, he got mad during the conversation and intimated it was much worse than it was. Mom had to follow up and reassure both of them that things would be okay. We don’t know how we will react in the moment. Resources from organizations that serve cancer patients can help.
Maintain Schedules and Rituals as You Can
Children appreciate constant schedules. That said, cancer will disrupt your daily life. Maintain the rituals that you can or add new ones. Can you still have Friday pizza night? Is there a friend or parent that can pick up the kids every Thursday and take them for dinner? Maybe the new ritual is the kids come to their parents’ bed for storytime instead of the other way around. Much may be unpredictable, so grasp moments and make them special as they come.
Listen and Be Present
What is a good way to support someone with cancer? Follow their lead, listen to their wishes and ask what they need. “Caring for the children is a separate issue. But it supports caring for the parents, by allowing the parents to focus on their own healing,” says Dr. Jacquot.
American Cancer Society, Helping Children When a Family Member Has Cancer
Cancercare.org, Talking to Children when a Loved One Has Cancer
Cancercare.org, Special Considerations when Talking to Teens
Yale Cancer Center, Booklist for Children and Families