Helping My Child When I Was Diagnosed with Cancer

by Cathy Nilon
As a 43 year old mother with a young son, when I was first diagnosed with Stage 2-b invasive breast cancer, I frantically searched for a book to help him understand my illness and what I would be going through in order to get well.  There was nothing suitable that would hold his attention.  I wanted to be honest with him discussing my surgery and treatment in broad strokes and answering his questions as they arose.
Below are some tips that got us through this painful journey.  
This is our story, each family and situation is different; this is simply what worked for us.
Digest the news of your diagnosis before telling your child. This way, your anxiety and fears will not scare him or her.  Have a few age appropriate books on hand to explain what will be happening.

  • Let your child know the news of your illness as early as possible.  This gives the family time before surgery and treatment so the child won't blame him or herself for the sadness that may become apparent in the house. You also don’t want him/ her to hear it from a well meaning neighbor.
  • Be honest and don’t hide the diagnosis.  Our son knew something was amiss and tense in our normally happy household. Telling him that mommy was sick and needed some strong medicine, made him realize that my initial depression and tears were not his fault.  He thought it was cool that I would be bald.  Girls at his school clearly did not share this idea!  We gave the cancer the correct name; mommy had breast cancer.
  • Let the child take the lead. They will ask in their own time what they wish to know.  One day in the post office my son asked: "Can boys get breast cancer?" The long line of customers leaned in for the answer (which I promptly and honestly answered in the car). “Very few boys or men get breast cancer.  You shouldn’t worry about that, you will be fine.”  This was also a good time for me to mention that he couldn't "catch" cancer.  The question that brought me to my knees was,” Will I be getting a new mom this spring?"  I answered, while holding back the tears, "I will always be your mama no matter what life brings."
  • Include the children in the process from treatment to recovery. Quiet games were a must, and kisses and hugs were the very best medicine. We played endless games of chess and bingo. Our son liked to be in charge of bringing me water and getting the “puke bucket”.
  • Schedules are important for children but it is perfectly ok and even beneficial to bend the rules as needed. Our son got to watch a bit more TV than usual; he is none the worse for the wear.
  • We also had a gift stash.  When I was too weak to even play bingo; we pulled out a new toy. I received many gifts during that time; why not spoil the child a bit as well?
  • Children are resilient; just let them know daily that they are loved immensely.
  • Give the child room to vent his/her frustrations and anger. I allowed my son to use bad words – only if he shouted them into his closet with the door shut. He was also able to draw all over the walls of the closet (walk-in) as a safe place to express his emotions. He ended up drawing on the door with markers a family portrait including God. We all had pig noses! I wish I saved that door after our remodel.
  • Pray!  If you already pray, step it up a few notches. Now is the best time ever to take up prayer with your family.  Faith will help to answer the tough and seemingly unanswerable questions. 

In summary, be yourself, be honest and know that your family will grow from this devastating experience in the most amazing and positive way.
Chemo CatAbout the Author:
Cathy Nilon is a breast cancer survivor and native New Yorker who now lives in the Seattle, WA area.  She wrote and illustrated Chemo Cat with her son Luca.  Educated in New York City at The High School of Art and Design, The Fashion Institute of Technology, as well as Ars Sutoria in Milan, Italy, she has had an extensive career in shoe design and production for Liz Claiborne, Jones New York and others, living in Italy, Indonesia, Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. Cathy plans to continue writing and illustrating books with uplifting themes for children of all ages. 
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