Understanding Kids When You Have Cancer, Episode 1

Hello! This is the first episode of a three part blog series about how to grow closer as a family and support your kids when you have cancer.

(And, basically you can apply this to any type of crisis you can go through.)

I’m enjoying spending lots of time with my children this summer and I hope that you and your closest loved ones are having fun too.

This is the first summer that I’ve had 100% of my energy back and have been able to give my kids 100% of my attention. This is so important to me because before cancer, I really did take it for granted that I would always be around to give them all of my love and attention. I’m sure you know what it’s like as a parent to be pulled in a million directions and put off spending quality time with those you love.

Going through this journey has helped me appreciate time spent with my favorite people, like my family, friends and clients.

Without further ado, here is episode 1 of Understanding Kids When You Have Cancer …

When do you tell your child you have cancer?

Should you tell them the whole truth?

Do you really know how your kids feel?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions if you are a parent of young children and you have just been diagnosed with cancer?

Many parents are afraid to tell their children that they have cancer because when you say the word, “CANCER”, the first thing kids think is “OMG, my mom is going to die.” Fear takes over their little minds and they don't understand or have the words to express themselves. That is exactly what my kids thought. The first question my son Griffin (8 years old at the time) asked me was, “What stage is it?”. He knew cancer by the stages. He had seen a friend’s mom go through cancer. She had stage 4, so he kept asking me if it was the worst stage? I told him I had a stage 111C. He didn’t really get what the C meant and I didn’t really either.  Later, I learned that “C” meant that my type of ovarian cancer had metastasized into my abdomen and pelvis region. Basically, the cancer had spread away from the original site. This is never a good thing.

If you haven’t already discovered this you soon will; cancer impacts the entire family. You will start to see your kids act out and that is because they are scared. This is normal behavior. My kids were also dealing with their parents going through a divorce so the feeling and emotions were at an all time high. Let’s just say, It was the most stressful year of my life. That year taught my kids and I so much stuff, but what it taught me was that if I can survive a divorce and cancer at the same time, I can do anything.

My kids noticed my optimistic, positive attitude and that was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. My kids are more resilient from this and so am I.

I wanted to share some of my personal stories with you because I felt so alone during my cancer treatment. I didn't reach out for support at first because I didn't want it to seem like my life was falling apart. I was trying to be the pillar of strength for everyone and I barely had enough energy to take care of myself. I am starting to see that there are many other moms out there just like me. They too are going through a divorce and cancer at the same time. If that is you, please feel my arms wrapped around you at this moment because I know exactly where you are and how stressful these days can be.

Some days I felt like a terrible mom when my kids begged me to play with them. I just didn’t have the energy. They didn’t know that and I felt like they thought I was ignoring them. That was the hardest for me. In Episode 2 of this series, I will share some of the journal entries my twins Macie and Griffin wrote to me. I had no idea how they felt. I took this time to get to know my kids.  I mean, really get to know them. To sit down with them and listen to them. I didn’t want to tell them what to do or yell at them, I wanted them to be a part of this journey with me. I first had to understand where their little minds were coming from.

So what did I do? It was simple. I talked to them. I asked them questions. I asked them if they were scared. I told them that it is ok to cry and that it’s ok to be scared because I was scared too. I didn’t lie to them.

Children have many different reactions when they learn that their parent has cancer. They can be angry, afraid, nervous, sad, happy and may show signs of guilt. Children can feel confused. In my situation, my kids were really confused. They were learning a new schedule going back and forth between their dad’s house and mine while processing the fact that their mom is really sick. I could only imagine this being a kid’s worst nightmare. The great news is that kids, like us, are resilient!

My kids had a hard time talking about their feelings. This is when I reached out for help. I was more worried about my kids and what they were feeling more than if I was going to die or not. Looking back, this was a good distraction for me. I didn’t focus too much on me, but rather being a good mom.  My local cancer center provided me and my kids a woman who was trained to work with kids in these kinds of situations. She asked them to draw their feelings. I was shocked at what I saw.

My son Griffin just took his black crayon and scribbled as hard as he could on the paper. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “NOTHING.”

He was angry, very angry. He didn’t know how to express his feelings. He often took his anger out on me. One time he actually chased me around the house with a broom stick and hit me. That was my breaking point. Griffin is a different child now. We both laugh at that story when I tell him. We both have grown so much through this cancer journey together. I am so grateful for this.

Here is another story. It was so funny and I had to hold it together so that I didn’t crash my car after what I heard my nine year old daughter tell her friend. One day when I was driving my daughter around with her girlfriend, I smiled and said, “Thank you,” when her sweet friend Harper said that she loved my new haircut. Ha, I had a shaved head, but she thought it was cool. I loved that little girl.

Next, I heard the girls talking in the back seat. My daughter told her friend that I didn’t have a haircut, but that I had cancer. They were whispering in the back trying to be quiet, but I could hear everything that they were saying. My daughter said to her friend, “My mom has stage 111C ovarian cancer and she is going to die.” I almost crashed the car. I wanted to stop the car right then and there and say, “No, No I am not going to die”,  but I didn’t because I didn’t know if that was true. I always reassured them their their mom was a fighter and she would never give up. Being positive and showing your kids that you believe that you will survive will help calm their nerves and anxieties.

It broke my heart to see the fear in my kids eyes.

Some days my kids didn’t want to talk to me. It made me so sad. They seemed mad at me. I wished their little hearts could see and feel the pain I was going through. That is when I decided to ask them to take some time and journal their thoughts with me. I was in therapy, A LOT of therapy and I saw how journaling was helping me. So, I thought what the heck, I’ll see if we can communicate through writing. It actually worked. I would ask them questions and they would answer on paper. I think they felt safer this way. They didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I made sure that I told them there are no wrong answers and that they can write their own story or blog, just like I was. They loved that idea. I sometimes gave them journal prompts to start with. That was really helpful for them.

This is a picture my twelve year old son Hayden drew. The prompt I used asked for him to color in his feelings.

You can see the feelings that were colored in the most were sad, fear, a lot of guilt, and nervousness along with with some happy hair! That makes me so happy to see that there was some happiness inside of him. Sometimes it felt like I was talking to a brick wall.

Macie drew a rainbow picture with the names of her guinea pigs. She put herself on top of the rainbow with the words, “I don’t know.”

All I wanted was for my kids to express their feelings without being afraid or ashamed.

I'll leave you with that happy rainbow picture for now. 

In Episode 2 of this series you'll get to see what my kids wrote. It was so eye opening for me and I think it will be for you too! 

What do you appreciate about the ones you love the most?

If you found inspiration to feel even more grateful about your life after reading this post, and know someone who could use a pick-me-up, please share this with them.

Hugs and Love,

Emilee 💕