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Baby, I Have Breast Cancer: Breaking the News to a Child

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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.

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