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How to talk to your children about having breast cancer
Facing the diagnosis
In 2004 I found a lump in my left breast. I just knew it was cancer . My heart raced. After a deep breathe my brain finally engaged and I said aloud - "I am a mum my children are little and I am not ready to die. This lump has got to go."
The girls and I were on a work related camping trip supporting mothers struggling with addiction and FASD, so going to my doctor was not an option for the next few days.
I managed to hold things together emotionally and no one knew what was going on in the back of my mind. By the time I got back to Victoria my breast was beginning to hurt and they say cancer doesn't. This convinced my doctor that it was a cyst. The pain coming from swelling due to my period. I knew he was wrong - I know my body well.
I had been feeling quite tired and under the weather for a while but I put that down to being a single mum and working at a rewarding but stressful job. I had also moved into an old house so my parents who had moved to Canada from England on temporary visas could live with us because they were struggling financially to live on their own. There was a lot of stress and financial pressure.
I went to the hospital for the mammogram and biopsy alone - that was a mistake and, if you are facing a possible cancer diagnosis, I strongly urge you to take someone with you. The doctor looked concerned during the biopsy and a specialist was called. My heart sank.
Later sitting with my GP who confirmed the diagnosis I experienced a sense of urgency to cut the ********lump out so I could get on with my life and raising the girls who were ages 5 and almost 7.
Telling your family
Front and center of my thoughts was not the cancer, I knew after a mastectomy I would be OK, I just believed that, my thoughts were concerned with my children. We had already been through the trauma of a separation when they were a lot younger and I knew that handling this was even more important . It had to be done honestly, sensitively and bravely.
Depending on the age of your children being honest with them must also be age appropriate. I told the girls that I had an owie, because that was the language they understood. I explained that I had a lump in my breast and that to be healthy I was going to have it removed. I used lots of hugs and kept the conversations short - sharing information as they asked questions and reassuring them if they needed that. I was always very positive and let them know that it was serious but that I was strong and the doctors and nurses were going to help me get better.
Keeping structure and routine was very important and helped the girls feel safe. When I needed to release my feelings I made sure to do that after they were in bed and I am so thankful for the friends who allowed me to just let it all go.
The cancer patient receives a lot of attendtion and it is so important that we, as the patient and as supporters, recognize what the children are experiencing. Otherwise they will be left confused, frightened and bewildered. Naming their feelings and letting them know they are OK and quite normal is the best way to support them and the patient.
With older children and teens using the medical words to describe the diagnosis would be best. Even though they were young I did still tell the girls the medical words such as mammogram (which they turned into mumyogram:-)) and mastectomy. I had them draw pictures of us as a family and all the fun things we liked to do and would be able to do after I was made better.
The night before surgery was very hard on my oldest daughter. She was almost seven and wanted to sleep with me. She went to sleep, after crying in my arms. That was certainly my darkest hour. I wrote both girls a letter telling them how important and loved they were which they were given when they were woken up by my mum.
When I came home I lencouraged lots of activities that we could do together on the couch. I had a drainage tube and was very sore and tender. Keeping the girls in their routine, having friends take them for play dates and the support of my parents made the recovery process so much easier. Keeping an open dialogue with the girls and asking them to tell me about their day, make drawings for me and help with making dinner brought us all closer through this horrible experience.
In 2008 I wrote a short book from the perspective of my daughters about the experience to assist young children of other mothers who are facing breast cancer. Mummy Had an Owie no longer has its own website but I would be happy to send you a copy on request to my email at email@example.com