As you know from my last post — as well as from all of the pink ribbons everywhere — October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most of this focus is on raising money for “the cure,” but I know from personal experience, awareness needs to include survivorship: helping patients and families from point of diagnosis, to resuming their life when treatment is over. While cancer is a devastating disease that affects the whole family, children are often the last to know about a parent’s cancer.When I was 12, my father died of cancer. While I knew my father was sick, no one ever told me what was wrong or why he was in the hospital for prolonged periods of time. In fact, I never even visited him there, nor did the issue of his illness ever come up. During the times he was home, I was rarely allowed in his room, and then only for short periods of time where I sat on the edge of the bed, and we made small talk, like strangers. Talk about an elephant in the living room! I went about my usual activities—school and piano lessons—as my mother slowly unraveled before my eyes.
So know this: our children know more about what goes on in our house than we imagine, and a parent’s life-threatening illness may leave them afraid and vulnerable. Regardless of the situations we find ourselves in, we must find appropriate ways to talk to our children and teens. Talk to them honestly about cancer in the family. Obviously, what is appropriate for a five-year-old to hear and understand is different than what a nine-year-old or a 12-year-old can process. They many not be mature enough to know how to put things in their proper perspective and need our help understanding what cancer can mean to the family.Some children and teens may not be comfortable discussing their feelings with either parent, or they may try the “tuff kid” route. Just know that they are scared and probably have many questions a therapist or a “parents with cancer” group can help you answer. It’s not unusual for each family member to feel angry, isolated and totally overwhelmed by a cancer diagnosis. But if we, or they, are having trouble coping with anything, we need to find a minister or a counselor who will listen to every member of our family and help us work through our fears. It’s also a good idea to visit with your children's teachers. If they are aware of your or your spouse’s cancer, perhaps they can help curb or redirect any related behavioral and learning problems before they get out of hand.
Another important support option for children and teens whose parents have cancer is hearing from other kids who find themselves in a similar situation. Many cancer care centers offer support groups for kids and teens, as well as for the family as a whole. Amy’s Blog, on BreastCancerSisterhood.com, may be the only support blog for children and teens. Amy was 13 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Soon after, her parents separated, and Amy became her mother’s primary caregiver. Today Amy is 19, a college sophomore, and she blogs as a big sister, the voice of experience, chronicling her own fears and anger from when her mother was diagnosed, along with finding her new normal and how the experience helped her grow as a person.Regardless of your age, Amy offers a wise voice in the midst of uncertainty about coping and discovering strengths we didn’t know we had. Whether using a Michael Buble song, stories about living in a small town, or her fears about leaving home, Amy encourages 10-year-olds and 60-year-olds to “go out on the limbs that stretch us a little further.” This is how we discover how much courage we have, how brave we are, and just how much appreciation we have for the word “home” and everything that comes with it.Find a way to help your children understand and deal with cancer in the family, but whatever you do, please don’t just sit on the edge of the bed and make small talk.Brenda Ray Coffee, founder and CEO of the Survivorship Media Network, LLC, is an experienced entrepreneur, journalist/filmmaker, former board member and managing consultant to a publicly held company and breast cancer survivor.