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Helping Kids Cope When Mom Has Breast Cancer

DeLand_KKC_coverBy Dr. Maitland Deland

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. And while many news outlets will focus on breast cancer prevention and treatment for women, few will tackle how breast cancer impacts a patient’s family — and more specifically her kids.

As a radiation oncologist who has spent my life working closely with women and children, I know how difficult it can be for mothers to explain to their kids what a breast cancer diagnosis means and what it’s implications for their lives will be.

Caregivers do their best to guide parents as they struggle to talk with their children about cancer, but misunderstanding, denial, and apprehension often distort the communication process. Frustration and fear can build up as parents respond to their child’s curiosity with hesitation. Parents must provide appropriate information about cancer to gain the confidence they need to do the best they can for their child.

Though it may seem counterintuitive — giving your children as much information as possible will actually help them to not be so scared about a cancer diagnosis. It’s okay to explain biopsies, x-rays, cat scans, chemotherapy and radiation to a child, just make sure you’re making it simple enough for them to understand.

It’s also important to try and remain upbeat, and positive. Let your child know that treatment might make you tired but that ultimately you’re getting the medicine that’s going to help you get better. Put it in perspective by comparing it to other illnesses that your child may have experienced in the past, for example: “remember when grandpa had surgery and we visited him in the hospital? He was sick, but now he’s better.” Emphasize that the treatment process takes time, but it’s all about making you well.

When a parent falls ill, some children may begin acting out. They’re afraid and overwhelmed and aren’t completely sure how to handle their new feelings. It’s important to remember that simply spending time with your child, and talking to them about the diagnosis can help assuage some of their fear.

I understand that for a woman going through chemotherapy and cancer treatments, finding the time and energy to spend with your little ones can be a challenge. But there are certain activities moms can do with their sons and daughters that don’t require too much exertion.

Try setting up some comfy pillow and blankets on the floor and watching a fun movie, or get some board games or jigsaw puzzles to work on together. For the mommies who have a little more energy, scrapbooking and crafting are great options that don’t require a lot of moving about.

Finally, don’t feel bad about relying on your friends and family for a little extra help. I know you’re an independent woman who has spent a lifetime learning to fend for yourself but now’s the time to ask for the help that you really need. Trust me, your loved ones won’t mind coming over to watch your children while you take a quick nap. In fact, they’re probably desperate to do anything they can to help!

The most important thing to remember is you don’t have to shelter your children or hide the truth about your breast cancer diagnosis from them. As much as you have been there to kiss their boo-boos and chase away the scary closet monsters, they will want to be there to help you through your illness as well… so let them! It will only help to bring you closer in the end.

For more information on how to help children understand a cancer diagnosis, check out my book: “The Great Katie Kate Tackles Questions About Cancer.”


M. Maitland DeLand, M.D. is a radiation oncologist, specializing in the treatment of cancer in women and children. A leader in her field, Dr. DeLand serves as a member of the national Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board. In The Great Katie Kate Tackles Questions About Cancer, Dr. DeLand introduces children to Katie Kate, a young superhero who takes readers step-by-step through the cancer treatment process, becoming a trusted advocate and making cancer easier for children to understand. The Great Katie Kate series is available onAmazon.comBarnes&Noble.com, and through most major booksellers.

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