Caregiver’s Perspective: Parenting and Cancer

We've never hidden cancer or the changes it's brought to our lives. My partner and I have spoken openly and often about the changes that advanced breast cancer wrought on our lives.

Talking about cancer to our daughter

For example, we sold our house, lost our jobs, experienced financial instability, and moved across the country. We've said goodbye to dreams and learned more about the medical field than I ever expected without paying medical school's lofty tuition.

Most of all, though, we've had to learn how to talk about cancer with the person we want to protect most in the world: our daughter.

Our daughter's experiences

Our daughter was 4 years old when my partner was first diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. At first, for her, it was as simple as "Mommy's sick, the doctors are going to help, and the medicine might make them feel or look a little different."

Her questions ended there; for her, it was simple, as now both of her parents could spend all their time with her. As time passed, the questions did too. "When will mommy be better? Why can't the doctors fix it? What made it happen?"

Growing together through advanced breast cancer

As she's grown, the questions have become more frequent, more about the long-term effects of what this looks like for her life. She's experienced anger, confusion, grief, all incredibly normal emotions to experience when dealing with this sort of thing. She's shown us how to be vulnerable and the power of just letting it all out with a good cry.

Now, our daughter is 7 years old and knows more about cancer than any kid should. She says she wants to be a nurse when she grows up.

Dealing with feelings of isolation

Out of everything, the most challenging part of having a parent with advanced breast cancer for our daughter has been an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. The isolation of having a medically fragile mom through the pandemic wasn't easy.

Transitioning back into life, even vaccinated, still has its risks. A simple cold could spell time in the hospital and possibly pause treatment for my partner.

This has kept us at a distance in making decisions about school, attending birthday parties, and traveling. We still do these things occasionally, but always with calculated risks. People have chosen to leave our lives and hers, leaving behind questions and wounds that only time will heal.

Parenting is not one-size-fits-all

Like with many things with parenting, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. All children are different, and they will react differently to similar situations or information. It's been a continuous journey of learning, adjusting, and educating ourselves on what to say and when and how we say it.

Ways we have supported our daughter

As parents, we've read books, ordered books for her bookshelf, engaged, and worked with organizations that have helped provide information and connection. We found our daughter a therapist and created a network of support for ourselves and her. There is nothing wrong with asking for help, especially in our situation; help is necessary. Especially if it keeps my daughter from ever thinking she's alone.

The most helpful is being honest and open with our daughter while providing the information she wants. It isn't her fault. She's loved, and the doctors are trying their best. We grow with her as she grows, learning how best to support her on this journey.

Tips for talking to children about cancer

If you are like me and need help speaking with your child about cancer, these are some tips I would like to share and I hope you find helpful:

  • Keep it short and simple.
  • Don't give timelines.
  • Don't overcomplicate (write your main points down if that helps).
  • Let them ask questions.
  • Be honest.
  • It's okay to cry.
  • Find books to read together.
  • Allow them to attend medical appointments if it seems appropriate.

Helpful resources

Some resources we have found incredibly helpful as we continue to grow with our daughter include:

  • Bright Spot Network
  • CancerCare
  • Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

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