The “C” Word
Talking to Your Kids About Cancer
article by Cindy G. Foust
Sometimes, I think I share too much of my life in this column. I try, however, to use my life’s experiences to help someone else (avoid the Golden Gate Bridge at all costs), so this month won’t be any different. As we begin to embrace the days of fall, this season brings with it many holidays and events to look forward to…Halloween, Thanksgiving, football games and mammograms. I mean, doesn’t everyone have a mammogram in October, the month for national breast cancer awareness? Doesn’t every woman look forward to having an exam that feels like someone is flattening a “certain part” of their anatomy (that’s about as clinical as I know how to get) under their car tire? Whether you have your mammogram in October or not, the point is, I hope our female readers are at least having one…sometime. Since we are prevailed upon during October to bring awareness to a disease that takes the lives of 40,000 women every year (American Cancer Society), I thought this month I might share my first hand experience, particularly where my children are concerned, with our readers.
In April, 2012, I found myself as busy as the next person, children, work, work, children, and in that order. My symptoms were a little different than most, as I did not find a lump in my breast, but a sign nonetheless that something was wrong. I immediately called my doctor, who insisted I have a mammogram right away. Mind you, I had just had a mammogram the previous June, in 2011, so to be honest, the last thing on my mind was breast cancer. After a series of tests I was told that I did in fact have breast cancer. For those readers that share this or a similar diagnosis, the news literally takes your breath. As I tried to get down our stairs to get to Scott, who was outside, my thoughts were immediately of him and my children. When I heard the “C” word, my mind raced to the future, one filled with uncertainty and worry about what would happen to my family. It never occurred to me, until after I had met with my doctor, that breast cancer is very treatable, especially when caught early, and that I was going to be just fine. To be clear, from the onset of my first symptom, to the day of diagnosis, was two and a half weeks. My esteemed surgical oncologist, Dr. Michael Schwalke, during my first meeting with him, stressed the importance in regular, routine mammograms and the importance of seeing a doctor as soon as you begin having symptoms or first find a lump. So there’s the first moral of this story…schedule your mammogram if you haven’t or see your doctor if you have any suspicious symptoms.
The next order of business in this story, of course, was telling my children.
I’ve done quite a bit of reading on this topic since deciding to write about my own story, to determine if we should have handled things different with our kids. Let me tell you, when you first get the news of any illness, your first thought is not to race to the computer to decide how a “family meeting” should be held. Your first thought is how will this affect my children. I was pleasantly surprised to find that credible sources on this subject vary little in their recommendations, and suggest the first and best thing to do is just tell your children the truth.
At the time of my diagnosis, my son was fourteen, and my daughter was seven. The thought that I might die and leave them was indeed crippling. There is such a big age gap in my children’s ages, but I knew that telling the truth was where it had to start. In our case, we did it individually, taking time with each child to explain what we knew. At this point, we knew nothing about my diagnosis, if I would be having surgery, if I would have chemo…we knew nothing. As you might expect, they both had a lot of questions. It has been my experience through the years, after a series of unfortunate losses in my life, that the best thing you can do for your children when they are experiencing any type of loss or grief, is to encourage them to talk about it…ask questions…and engage in their worry. I am not a psychologist, and there may be some that would disagree, but I wanted my children to know what was going on, and then feel free to talk about their concerns and their fright. After all, I too, was scared to death. It was interesting to watch the way they both handled the initial news, and how they handled the days that were to come. My son had but one consistent worry, and that would be that I might die. Hmmm….this is getting heavy for a children’s column. True, but it’s reality. My daughter, at a more tender age, was concerned that I had to get a shot to get better. Both of these concerns were legitimate, and we worked hard over the next few months to alleviate their fears, but being as truthful as we could about what was about to happen to their mother.
So what did happen to me? I did undergo a double mastectomy exactly two months from the date of my diagnosis, and as predicted by my doctor, “I was going to get well, I was just going to have to go through a lot to get there.” Boy, was he right, but guess what? I am well.
The road to recovery was long and hard (gosh, kind of sounds like I live on the wagon trail), but because of my early detection, my treatment was minimal compared to some of my dear breast cancer surviving friends. My children made it through as well, with what I hope to be a little more compassion or a little more concern for others than they would have had. I had the most remarkable family and friend support system, countless prayers, good treatment and a lot of faith. In my mind I knew it could have been worse, and I tried to focus on getting well and keeping my children calm and comforted during the “ordeal.”
So as I put the final words to this October-fest story, take the time, if you haven’t already done so, and make that mammogram appointment. If you find yourself going through this or a similar experience, grit your teeth and keep going. Once you find yourself in the survivor’s state of mind, use your experience to help someone else who is battling a medical crisis. And finally, if you have children or grandchildren involved in the process, don’t be afraid to tell them exactly what’s going on and allow them to grieve with you. Trust me, as difficult and sobering as this time is, it will evolve into a time that will make your family stronger than ever.