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How to talk to your children about your breast cancer diagnosis?

– Josée Masson, social worker, founder and general manager of Deuil Jeunesse explains.

Children whose parent is diagnosed with breast cancer need a lot of information and support. It’s not easy to watch your parent get sick, and the word “cancer” can often cause great fear and lead the child to retreat into silence. To make sure you don’t say the wrong things by wanting to protect your children from this reality, we urge you to talk to your children and take care of their needs, which are often not what adults may think. It all starts with breaking the news.

Breaking the News

Whether you are breaking the news to a young child or to a teenager, it should be done the same way. The S-V-C method is very effective.

S – Keep it simple 

Although the tendency is to go around in circles before getting to the point of the message, you should know that children usually guess the gravity of what you’re about to say, and not getting to the point could even increase their level of anxiety. The announcement should not be overly formal, should be made in a place where they feel comfortable, and preferably by people who are important to the children (both parents together). If there are several children in the family, it is best they are all told at the same time, to avoid one finding out before the other and to make sure they all get the same information.

V – Verify 

It is important to make sure the children understand key concepts like cancer, breast, illness and chemotherapy. Sometimes they hear words without necessarily understanding their meaning. So take extra care to make sure they fully understand and correctly interpret everything that’s been said.

C – Clarify

You may need to provide more essential details. When both, children and parents, have the same facts, the parents are relieved from having to keep secrets, and the children don’t have to make up their own reality. In fact, don’t forget that we tend to make up the things we don’t know. And your home is far too small to keep such big secrets.

T-P-P of the Illness

T-P-P is an interesting approach to help children cope with the serious illness of someone they love:

T – Talk … about it—not just with words, but with pictures as well. Breast cancer not only has a name, but also a face that you can draw for your children. It may be important to give them accurate information on treatment plans and side effects. You should choose the right moment to do this and be very straightforward, as they might otherwise sense that you are hiding something and that you don’t trust them.

P – Participate … Children often don’t dare asking questions, but they do need to participate in the process. They want to know what they can do for their sick parent, they want to see the treatment facility and even meet the attending physician. All this helps them better grasp the new reality, and makes it easier for them to explain the situation to their friends and come up with the right story. Sheltering them from reality deprives them of the comfort of knowing they were there during their parent’s illness.

P – It might become necessary to Prepare for death … This implies saying the word, explaining it and giving the children ample opportunity to tell their parent everything they wish to say. However make sure there are just a few people around when you do this, as it could otherwise become an unpleasant experience. Children may refuse to accept their mother’s death, but still want to make drawings for her or have her listen to a prerecorded message. Anything can happen. It’s in everyone’s best interest to take time to listen to what the children have to say and grant them their wishes during their parent’s final days.

Parents’ and Children’s Concerns

Parents are often concerned about their children. They fear for them. Nevertheless, parents should put a lot of trust in their children and watch out for any signs of change. Adults often forget that children may have had problems even before receiving the news, and may mistakenly attribute all negative behaviours to the parent’s cancer alone. So it’s important to pay very close attention. Usually, behavioural changes related to the new situation are subtle and hard to identify. First of all, parents should remind themselves that their children DO HAVE abilities and to actually believe this. It is best that parents show their children warmth and affection and not hesitate to voice their concerns.

Meanwhile, children have fears of their own. Most often, they are afraid that the disease is contagious and that they may die. These fears are not a cause for concern: they are perfectly normal. Adults also have fears, and these fears should be acknowledged, accepted and dealt with in a simple, sincere manner. You cannot promise your child that you will never die, but you can tell them that it is not what you want, and that is why you are following the recommended treatments. If you refuse to listen to your children’s concerns, they may keep them to themselves and it could prove to be harmful.

Grief

Unfortunately, breast cancer can prove to be fatal sometimes and children and adults will be faced with mourning a loved one. Young people experience grief very differently from adults, first and foremost because death is a very complex concept to grasp, both on a cognitive and on an intellectual level. For this reason children experience grief differently as they age, and this could be the case until they reach maturity. For example, a 4-year old cannot grasp the impact of his mother’s passing, whereas it’s different for a 12 year-old. A 4-year old may wait for the deceased to come back, whereas a 12-year-old realizes she is not coming back. Consequently, there are many reactions and specific needs to be met. We should always remember that grieving is a unique process, experienced in a very personal way and influenced by a variety of factors. No person experiences grief quite the same way as another, and this is true even for toddlers. It is important then to accept that the grieving process could take years, to be aware of the stage each person is at, and accept that there will be different reactions even within the same family.

Resources

Deuil-Jeunesse is a non-profit organization that helps young people in several regions in Quebec to cope with the serious illness or death of a loved one. For more information you can call the following toll-free number 1 855 889-3666 or visit the website of the organization: deuil-jeunesse.com.


Interesting Books for Children

General

L’enfant et l’adolescent face au cancer d’un parent – Guide pour la famille et les intervenants

Target: ages 3 and over

Alice au pays du cancer, by Martine Hennuy and Sophie Buyse

This book uses tale and fantasy to dedramatize cancer. The pictures and text, based on the well-known story of Alice in Wonderland, help make this book a valuable resource to explain the disease to the children while removing the element of fear.

Target: ages 3 to 6

Ma maman est malade, by Bénou

Written and illustrated by a young mother with breast cancer, this book aims to foster communication between parents and children. The story deals with the various aspects of the disease: discovery, treatment and remission. This hardcover is suitable for young children, and is written in simple yet sincere language.

Target: ages 3 and over

Maman a une maladie grave, by Hélène Juvigny and Brigitte Labbé

This book tells the story of Hugo, a child whose mother has cancer. Hugo has mixed feelings about his mother’s cancer but learns to express them little by little. Footnotes can help children better understand some elements of the story.

Target: ages 6 to 9

Un dragon dans le cœur, by Sophie LeBlanc

This book tells the story of Laura, a girl who has to deal with her mother’s cancer. Although overcome with fear, the little girl learns to deal with it helped by a dragon who shows her how to enjoy every moment she spends with her family. It’s a simple and colourful text that allows children to better understand cancer.

Target: ages 7 and over

Le voyage de Luna, by Diane Barbara

This picture book talks about the children’s concerns when faced with their parent’s illness. It’s a good resource for children who may wonder about the inheritance of the disease.

Target: ages 7 to 12

Luron apprivoise les forces de l’espoir & L’amour pour toujours, by Line St-Amour

These books are designed to facilitate the communication with the child and to reach out to him/her on the different levels of his psychological process while he/she is dealing with the serious illness or the loss of a parent.

Target: ages 8 to 13

The Year My Mother Was Bald, by Ann Speltz

A diary in which 9-year-old Claire writes down her feelings about her mother’s cancer. The book helps children understand that their feelings are normal. To help understand medical concepts, Claire glued excerpts from scientific articles into her diary.