Saturday, 15 November 2014

My Cancer, My Kids and My Friends' Kids

The effects of my cancer spread like ripples on water.

When I was first diagnosed, I worried about how my children would take the news.  Then I worried about how to tell my parents, wider family and friends.  But it is only recently that I have begun to appreciate that the ripples spread wider, including to my friends' children.

My own children seem to be coping remarkably well.  I have been open with them from the beginning, taking advice from my cancer nurse and not avoiding difficult words like cancer and death as in "I have cancer but I'm not going to die." 

They have reacted in quite different ways.  My 9 year old daughter needs to know what is going on, to touch my bald head, see my mastectomy scar.  I have let myself be led by her in answering her questions as far as she wants to take them.  It has undoubtedly added to her anxieties - she doesn't like being away from me for long in case anything happens to me so we have stopped sleep overs at friends' houses for now - but she seems reassured that I'm not hiding anything from her.  So long as she can see I'm ok, she seems to be coping fine.

My eleven year old son, however, prefers not to know too much and so I've respected his need not to have all the details thrust on him.  For a while he really didn't want to see my bald head so I was careful to keep my head covered, though he's used to it now.  He's taken things very much in his stride.

Both are extra affectionate and do try to be helpful around the house when they remember but of course they tend to see my illness very much from their own perspective.  When I started Taxol, my daughter was touchingly concerned about how I was reacting to it - and then I realised that she was just hoping that I would be well enough to host her birthday party.  My son was hoping that I'd be late picking him up from a play date while I had my last chemo, until I pointed out that meant I'd be stuck up at hospital which wasn't so nice for me.  But that's normal, they're kids and their worlds revolve around them like all other kids.  They've been remarkably mature and supportive and I'm proud of them.
While I've been very conscious of the effect on my kids, I never considered that my diagnosis might fuel the anxieties of my friends' children until recently.  But of course, children look at what is happening and think, could that happen to my mum?  The unthinkable is suddenly there, right in front of them. 
It can be difficult for friends to know how to deal with their kids' questions, while respecting privacy.  A friend recently apologised because she was answering her daughter's questions and let slip that my 'new hair cut' is in fact a wig.  She felt bad in case I minded her daughter knowing.  My personal view is that parents need to be open and answer questions as honestly as possible.  I have no problem with kids running up to me in the playground and asking me if my hair is really a wig.  But I guess not all cancer sufferers would feel comfortable with that and so parents need to take a judgment call and warn their children that the friend with cancer might not like to talk about it.  And of course some of these issues are pretty personal.  I haven't had a playground question about my fake boob yet...

Sometimes reactions can be extreme.  Another friend was, unknown to me, dealing with the beginnings of OCD in her teenage daughter.  Unfortunately, my cancer diagnosis acted as a trigger for her daughter and became a focus for her anxieties.  Her daughter now cannot be around me, becomes stressed if I have been in their car or house and doesn't like her mother being near me.  No doubt, if I had not had my diagnosis then something else would have become the trigger for her.  But it has put my friend in an awkward situation.  She did the best thing she could and told me what was going on which helped me understand why she had sometimes been oddly distant.  It did also make me feel unpleasantly contaminated as well as guilty that I had caused the problem but I know that her daughter's illness is not rational and I mustn't take it personally.  I guess in this case, there wasn't much any of us could have done to assuage her daughter's anxieties.

An extreme reaction like that is unusual, but it is worth being aware that a cancer diagnosis can affect kids outside the immediate family, especially if close friends are heavily involved with supporting the cancer sufferer.  Parents might be upset on the cancer suffer's behalf and not realise that it is making their own children anxious.  With younger children, it is important to make sure they understand that cancer is not contagious so helping out is not putting their mummy at risk.  Kids are often both fascinated and disturbed by the loss of hair, so it can help to explain that it is a sign that the chemotherapy treatment is working and it will grow back.  It helps if the cancer sufferer can be open with their friends about what is going on so that parents are equipped to answer questions.  Children deal much better with things that are explained in age-appropriate ways, no matter how scary, than with things that are hidden from them. 

And there can be good effects too.  One friend found that her children had lots of questions and she answered them openly and patiently.  The family came to visit and saw that I was still the same, just wearing a headscarf.  Soon afterwards, she was also diagnosed with lobular breast cancer.  My experience made it easier for all the family to understand what was happening, and to know that breast cancer can be just another thing that the family takes in its stride.

Having cancer totally sucks.  But if we can be open and resilient in the way we deal with it, we can be role models for all the children in our community.  My daughter and my recently-diagnosed friend's daughter have been good friends since they were toddlers.  I think they will both grow up to be strong women who can cope with what life throws at them.  

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