When Mom Has Cancer
How families can survive and thrive through a difficult diagnosis
William Hart was 7 years old when his mother told him she had breast cancer.
“I felt scared and didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalls the now 14-year-old from Middletown, DE.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007 when she was just 36, Sharon Hart underwent a double mastectomy, reconstruction, chemotherapy and radiation. All the while, she was caring for her 7- and 4-year-old sons.
An honesty policy
“From the very beginning my husband and I wanted to be honest and upfront with the boys because we didn’t want them to be afraid,” says Sharon. “We knew I was going to look and act different, and I didn’t want them to think that it was anything they did. We didn’t say too much to the 4-year-old, because he was too young to understand. We told our 7-year-old that I had cancer and it was in Mommy’s booby, I was going in for surgery and they were going to take it out.”
The Harts relied on humor to get through their ordeal. “To cope is to joke,” Sharon insists. In fact, she showed her sons her drains after surgery, calling them her “cow udders.” When she started chemo, she allowed the boys to cut her hair before it fell out and help her wash and style her wig. She believes that experiencing the process along with her helped to alleviate some of her sons’ fears.
“I didn’t want to know she had cancer, but I liked to know what was going on,” says William. “For example, when she was losing her hair, I would have been scared if I didn’t know why.”
Sharon was frank but encouraging: “We didn’t talk about cancer being a killing disease but stayed positive: It’s nasty, but people do fight it and win the battle.”
Having “the talk”
Deciding how to share difficult news with your children is highly personal. “Oftentimes, children under 8 do not need much detail in the initial conversation, but they may ask more follow-up questions,” says Darcy Walker Krause, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Center for Grieving Children, which provides free support groups to kids dealing with the prolonged illness or death of a close relative “Older children and teens will likely want more detail.” (The American Cancer Society recommends books for kids of all ages at this link.)
“Kids are savvy now,” says Generosa Grana, MD, director of South Jersey’s Cooper Cancer Institute. “It’s important that you discuss it with them so they don’t feel the need to access information that they don’t know how to filter. It’s also important that the child feels comfortable asking you questions. The most important message is that you’re going to be there for them.”
“Pick a quiet, private time to sit down with your child,” says Walker Krause. “Explain what type of cancer you have, what body part it affects, any changes you should expect (hair loss, fatigue). Reassure him that you love him and that you and others will continue to care for him.”
Let your child’s school know about the illness. William Hart was able to participate in a “lunch bunch” program that allowed him to share his fears with a school counselor.
Family life through treatment
“Try to keep your children’s lives as normal as possible so there isn’t a lot of disruption for them,” says Cathy Holloway, program director for education and survivorship at the Delaware Breast Cancer Coalition.
That’s not always easy, as Sharon Hart discovered. “We’re an active family and we would always play outside,” she recalls. “It was challenging hearing my husband and the kids running around and not being able to be with them.”
Sharon admits that accepting help from friends and neighbors was also difficult but necessary. “When people ask you if you need anything, don’t be afraid to accept the help,” she asserts.
William hopes other kids never have to face what his family went through, but he has some advice if they do: “Stay strong and try to help out your mom as much as possible.”
Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.