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Explaining Cancer To Little Ones

In today’s time, the chances that you know someone or even love someone who has breast cancer are high. In fact, as of March 2017, there are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer in the U.S. This leaves us with a statistic of 1 in 8 U.S. women that will develop invasive breast cancer in their lifetime. While you may be aware of what you need to do to check yourself and stay on top of things there is likely something new in your life that you will have to conquer when yourself or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. Now, as parents, we are in a stage of life where we are faced with the task of explaining cancer to our little ones. 

CancerWait.. Explain cancer to children?

There seems to be a big stigma when it comes to someone being ill. As soon as someone is diagnosed and word gets out it’s like something you can’t talk about when children are around. We teach our children proper anatomy but we can’t tell them that a grandparent or aunt has cancer. Why? Maybe it leads to other conversations that are unpleasant. Such as death, the afterlife and the whole medical process involved. Maybe you aren’t ready to discuss these things with small ears. Well, you can call me crazy but I believe that children deserve to know what is going on when a family member or loved one is diagnosed with cancer.

Do I think that you should just blurt it out and leave it on the table for them to figure out? Absolutely not. I am going to share with you my personal experience of how we eased my five-year-old into the conversation and also my experience of not knowing.

I remember the first time I even heard about the word cancer. My aunt, my grandmother and a family friend all were diagnosed with cancer. I remember finding out from my parents each time and moving on quickly. Not out of disrespect but simply because I was a child and did not understand fully what that meant. When I found out about my dad having cancer it was off of our home answering machine. Remember when everyone had those? Leave a message after the beep turned into knowledge that I did not have five minutes prior that would change my world.

Looking back I understand why my parents did not tell me. I really don’t blame them for making the best decisions for our family. Why worry a young mind? Why share something that would change everything? Maybe he wasn’t ready. Or maybe it was a decision my dad made to try and protect me. He was always my protector and I can see where he would want to protect my young heart from something so heavy. 

At the same time, I feel like if we had of sat down to talk about it before I heard the message, I would have been comfortable enough to explore it more. Instead, I felt like it was a secret. Something not to be talked about and not to ask questions about. 

This is why we chose to explain and discuss, in an age-appropriate manner, my mother in law’s cancer to our children. Often referred to as Gigi, my mother in law, was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. A healthy, active and down-to-the-core good person was about to face a road unknown. After speculation and testing, we got the call that it was in fact cancer. We were in the car with both kids and I instantly started crying. The silent kind of cry that nobody can see and the kids certainly didn’t question. This was not when we told them.

I knew I wanted to tell them because of my own experience but I knew it was going to be without the emotion of my own. So here is what we did. 

We Read Books

What 5-year-old doesn’t love a good book? I hopped on Amazon and Google to find a book that would be the best fit for our family. The one that we loved was, “Someone I Love Is Sick.”

Explaining Different Types of Sick

The biggest confusion was understanding the difference between a runny nose and something that you can’t physically see at first.

We Were VERY Honest in the What to Expect Department

At the end of the school year, I was planning on going out to help my mother in law after her first surgery. My oldest would come with me and I wanted her to know what to expect. There would not be a lot of running around and jumping on Gigi, there would be some blood and bruises, and it would be a much slower paced visit than she is used to.

We Asked HER Questions

I did not expect my five-year-old to have many questions. While she did have some I had to set the tone of the conversation with questions to her. How would you feel if you were not able to do what you like for a couple of weeks? What if you felt very sleepy and someone wanted to talk to you?

We Continued the Conversation

I think this is the best thing we did and if we did anything right at all. I talked about it in the car line and the grocery store and at bedtime. We had genuine conversations about what cancer is and how it can happen to anyone. She became very open to the discussion the more we had it.

Breast Cancer

As a family, we have a pretty open line of communication in hopes of continuing this later on down the road. I want our kids to feel comfortable talking to us as they get older. If I want them to talk about the “hard” stuff with us as they get into those dreaded teen years then I know we have to talk to them about the hard stuff while they are little. While talking about cancer to your little ones may not work for every family, I know it was the right thing for ours.

I will never forget what my daughter said on the last day of our trip to take care of Gigi. As we were getting ready to leave, my mother in law asked for her to take some money to buy a toy for the flight home.

 My five year old leaned in for a kiss and said, “I hardly think a present is worth what being here with you is worth to me.” There was not a dry eye in the room. 

The compassion and understanding this whole experience has given my children is not something to be forgotten. This whole experience of loving and losing in life is something that everyone has to deal with. Unfortunately, so many of us will be in the circumstance that gives us the opportunity to teach these lessons to our children while they are still so little. 

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