As a parent, there is nothing more disconcerting than having to take something from your child. I've had parents call me late in the evening to ask me to open the school doors so they can recover their child's blanket. A very guilty parent goes on to tell me how their child is crying inconsolably and won't go to sleep without it. When a mother is affected by breast cancer, telling her child would take away much more than an object of affection; it would take away her child's innocence.
This year, an average of 445 Canadian women will be diagnosed with breast cancer each week. Many of these women will be faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to turn their child's world upside down.
I have not been diagnosed with breast cancer, but I have coached several mothers and families through the process. I have, however, had to have difficult conversations with my sons when going for two operations, in addition to preparing everyone for the varied outcomes, whether good or bad. As a teacher, researcher, early development expert, parenting coach and, of course, as a mother, I humbly offer you these words of advice:
To Tell or Not to Tell
This is a very personal and circumstantial decision. One of the major factors is age. I recommend telling your child only if he or she is older than two or three. Although it may seem young still, by then a child can already sense a difference in the household and is at threat of internalizing the problem. Children learn to trust you and it's important for you to be honest with them. Breaking the news will also help the child prepare for the physical changes that may occur and give them time to process the situation.
When Not to Tell
If a child is too young to comprehend what cancer is and how it might affect their mother, the conversation is better reserved for when they're a bit older. If your child is older, but you truly feel that they can't emotionally handle the news, I recommend seeing a therapist, but still facing the situation. Likewise, if you're having a hard time processing the news yourself, it's not a good time to have a conversation with your child. Wait until you feel stronger, or consult a therapist yourself first. It is very important that you do not alarm your child.
When To Tell
Never tell until your doctor has confirmed your fears, and you have concrete, tangible information to share with your children. Depending on the family dynamics, it can be a good idea to gather everyone together to break the news. It's important to choose a weekend or another time of leisure so everyone has time to process the information and answer questions as they arise. Pick a time when you're feeling particularly strong, not emotional. As a mother, they will look to you for support, even during this time.
What to Expect Once You've Told
Your child will have a lot of questions and it's important that you answer them all; if you don't know the answer you can research together. You may also be surprised to find that many of these questions will pertain to them: "Who will take care of me if something happens to you?" Some questions may seem selfish and hurtful, but they are very important to your child, and they too need an answer.
Your child may feel angry with you but you must not take it personally. Understand these are normal feelings, even when they hurt. Have faith that these feelings will pass in due time.
More than ever your child will need reassurance that they are loved. Do things as a family as much as possible, but expect that your child may withdraw from you. That's okay, it's just a way for them to protect themselves. Respect their needs.
How Can I Make it Better?
Your attitude will have a huge impact on your child. Try not to show them your fears, but reassure them that things will get better. If you feel pain, it's okay to share that with your children, and allow them to help by bringing you medicine, or a pillow and blanket so you can have a nap, for example. Likewise, when you are ready to go to the hospital, let them help as much as possible by picking a nightgown for you to wear during your stay, or drawing a picture to decorate your room. Your partner or a family member can help your children buy a new book for you to bring, or something you will really love. It is really important for your children to take a proactive role during this time, and to help in your recovery. It will be just as beneficial for them as it is for you.
Not Forgetting Yourself
As difficult and unfair as it might seem, you need to take some time for yourself when you feel you need it. Do something you love and do the things that make you happy; you will be better prepared to spend quality time with your children if you take care of your needs and wants. Not only will this help your children, it will tremendously aid in your recovery.
Results of a massive gene analysis, published last month in the journal Nature, shows that there are four major classes of breast cancer, the Associated Press reported. "With this study, we're one giant step closer to understanding the genetic origins of the four major subtypes of breast cancer," study researcher Matthew Ellis, M.B., B.Chir., Ph.D., of the Washington University School of Medicine and the Siteman Cancer Center, said in a statement. "Now, we can investigate which drugs work best for patients based on the genetic profiles of their tumors," he added in the statement. "For basal-like breast tumors, it's clear they are genetically more similar to ovarian tumors than to other breast cancers. Whether they can be treated the same way is an intriguing possibility that needs to be explored."
Men are less likely to get breast cancer than women -- but when they do, it's often deadlier, according to a study presented earlier this year at the American Society of Breast Surgeons meeting. The Associated Press reported that men diagnosed with breast cancer live, on average, two fewer years than women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, and are also more likely to have the breast cancer spread, have larger tumors when the cancer is discovered, and be diagnosed later.
Cadmium -- a toxic metal that can be present in foods like shellfish, root vegetables, offal and cereals -- may raise risk of breast cancer, according to a March 2012 study in the journal Cancer Research. The research included 56,000 women. Researchers were able to analyze about how much cadmium each woman was consuming based on the cadmium-rich foods in her diet. They found that those who consumed the most cadmium had a 21 percent higher breast cancer risk, compared with those who consumed the least cadmium, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Getting six or fewer hours of sleep may raise the risk of recurrent breast cancer among post-menopausal breast cancer patients, according to a study in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment. However, this same link was not observed for pre-menopausal breast cancer patients. The findings suggest "that lack of sufficient sleep may cause more aggressive tumors, but more research will need to be done to verify this finding and understand the causes of this association," study researcher Cheryl Thompson, Ph.D. said in the statement.
A smallpox virus seems to be promising against a hard-to-treat form of breast cancer, called triple-negative breast cancer, according to a study in mice presented at the 2012 Annual Clinical Congress of the American College of Surgeons. "Based upon pathology, we could see that at least 60 percent of the tumors were completely regressed and the other 40 percent had very little areas of tumor cells present with a lot of necrosis, which is a sign that the tumor was responding to therapy," study researcher Dr. Sepideh Gholami, M.D., of Stanford University Medical Center, said in a statement. ABC News pointed out that this kind of breast cancer is notoriously hard to treat because it doesn't respond to other hormonal or immune treatments.
Working the night shift is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, according to two different studies that came out this year. One of them, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, showed that breast cancer risk went up among women who worked the night shift more than twice a week, with the risk being the highest among those who said that they are "morning people" instead of "night people." The Toronto Sun reported that the results of this study confirm the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which has a list of items and habits that may cause cancer. The IARC considers shift work "possibly carcinogenic." The other study, published in the International Journal of Cancer, showed that breast cancer risk is 30 percent higher for women who work the night shift, with the risk being especially clear among those working night-time jobs for four years, or those who worked the night shift for three or fewer nights a week.
The genes that help determine a woman's breast size may also be linked with her breast cancer risk, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal BMC Medical Genetics. Researchers examined the genetic data of 16,000 women to find that seven DNA variations, called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), seem to be linked with breast size -- and three of those SNPs are known to be associated with a person's risk of breast cancer, HuffPost's Catherine Pearson reported.
Just a little bit of exercise may help to reduce your risk of breast cancer, though the more you move, the better, according to a study in the journal CANCER. Researchers at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill found that postmenopausal or reproductive-age women in their study who exercised the most -- from 10 to 19 hours each week -- had a 30 percent lower risk of breast cancer, though exercising less than that was still linked with some protective benefits. "The observation of a reduced risk of breast cancer for women who engaged in exercise after menopause is particularly encouraging given the late age of onset for breast cancer," study researcher Lauren McCullough said in a statement.
For post-menopausal women, having Type 2 diabetes may raise the risk of breast cancer, according to a review conducted by the International Prevention Research Institute. "On the one hand, it's thought that being overweight, often associated with Type 2 diabetes, and the effect this has on hormone activity may be partly responsible for the processes that lead to cancer growth," study researcher Peter Boyle, the president of the International Prevention Research Institute, told The Telegraph. "But it's also impossible to rule out that some factors related to diabetes may be involved in the process."
Being overweight could lead to worse outcomes from breast cancer, according to a study published August in the journal Cancer. Specifically, the study showed that overweight women who have been treated for breast cancer have a higher risk of recurrence and death, NBC News reported. "Obesity seemed to carry a higher risk of breast cancer recurrence and death -- even in women who were healthy at the time that they were diagnosed, and despite the fact that they received the best available chemotherapy and hormone therapy," study researcher Dr. Joseph Sparano, associate chairman of medical oncology at the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care, told NBC News.
Marisa Weiss, MD, of breast cancer.org, explains the different breast cancer stages and what they mean.
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