When I first heard the news "you have cancer," I was the mother of a 8 year old girl barely coping with her parents' divorce, which had been final less than a month. I had no idea what to tell her. At first, I sat her down and said something like "mommy has something inside her that doesn't belong there and the doctors are going to have to do surgery to get it out." She seemed to accept that. But at church a few weeks later, it was published in the bulletin that I wanted prayers for my recent cancer diagnosis. I knew that now, she would find out anyway and I couldn't let her find out from someone else. We were driving home when I told her that I had cancer. She, of course, immediately panicked. "Mom, you have CANCER.....you can't have cancer." You get the picture. After some talking, I convinced her that while I was going to need to have surgery, that I would be fine. The next 3 months were a nighmare of surgeries, complications and a diagnosis of stage 3a cancer. Luckily, I had no lymph node or other metastasis and the doctors were able to get all the cancer through an RC and a radical hysterectomy. My baby spent the time I was in the hospital with my family and with her father. He showed real class by remarrying with a few days notice while I was in the hospital, to a woman my daughter had met only a couple of times. She managed to roll with these punches, and to continue to function well. But I could tell something was wrong. We talked every day when I was hospitalized and convalescing nearby. Sometimes we skyped. It gave me a reason to fix up and put on makeup. When I got home, she moved into my room in case I needed something at night. In fact, I got up every two hours to empty my pouch, and she slept through it all and cuddled up when I got back to bed. It was clear that she needed some therapy to feel secure again. It has been six months now since I have been home. So far, so good as to the cancer. My new fake bladder, as I call it to her, is doing well. If you have had a continent diversion of any type and wonder what to tell your kids, I would say answer questions honestly, but don't push information they are not ready for. It was a couple months before she asked what the catheters were for. She would walk in to the bathroom when I was in the Jacuzzi and notice the tape over my stoma and would ask what is under there. Eventually, she wanted a look. She said it looked like a second little belly button. After that, she never asked again...she had figured out enough to be satisfied and didn't feel a need to know more. We use the term "pit stop" for cathing, since it takes a little longer for me to go to the bathroom. She is concentrating in school as she did before, but this took several months.
If anyone were to ask me about cancer and their kids, I would give the following advice:
1. Don't lie to them as the feeling of powerlessness in the face of cancer is bad enough, and they don't need to deal with the feeling of betrayal too.
2. Find good child care during the worst of surgery or treatment. You need to concentrate on healing yourself.
3. Understand that you aren't the only one affected by cancer - your child, whatever their age, is affected and they will have anxiety and grief, just like you. Give them space and permission to grieve.
4. Any child going through a parent with cancer needs a support group or therapist who can help him or her through it. You can be many things to your child, but you cannot perform this function. They need a safe place to say things like "I'm scared my mom is going to die."
5. Cancer will make you appreciate your life and your kids so much more. During my long RC hospital stay of 32 days, I would dream of driving Kathryn to the bus stop for school and fixing her lunch. The first day I did it was so special. You may find you want to take a cruise or a trip once you are cancer free or stable. Take it. Dip in savings if you have to. Make memories with your child. That way, no matter what, cancer will not defeat you as a parent.
Good luck, mom, dad, grandma and grandpa. You got this thing. You can do it.