Cancer Survivor Shares Experience with Talking to Kids About Cancer

7 min read

Cancer Survivor Shares Experience with Talking to Kids About Cancer

Mom Vows: ‘I Will Show You a Different Side of Cancer’

Colorado hairdresser Brandi Pacheco was 43 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and began treatment at Rocky Mountain Breast Specialists (RMBS). At that time, her daughter was 11 and her son was 5. Still, Brandi did not consider keeping her diagnosis secret or sugar-coating it to “protect” her children. 

“Kids are a lot smarter than you give them credit for,” she said. “They would know, and they would never forgive me for telling other people before them.”

She added an important reminder that’s easy to forget for people battling cancer: “It’s not just your fight. They’ve got just as much in the fight too.”

Enlist Your Kids in Your Fight Against Cancer

Because Brandi discovered the lump in her breast shortly before Christmas, she chose to keep her concerning discovery and medical tests a secret briefly to avoid ruining the holidays. But it never occurred to her to maintain that silence indefinitely. In fact, she said those two weeks of secrecy were among the hardest times in her cancer journey.

Woman and husband did many things to help their children process cancer diagnosis when talking to kids about cancerAfter breaking the news to her husband of 29 years, her high school sweetheart, Brandi’s two children were the next people she told. She chose to tell them both together so that they could gain support from each other and feel equal to one another. But she didn’t just dump the news in their laps. Instead, she spent some time introducing the subject of cancer beforehand. She told them about a friend’s mother who had breast cancer and had gone through treatment – which was really hard – but now she was cancer-free. 

Stories of positive outcomes were important beforehand for Brandi’s children because they had only known cancer to be fatal. “My kids’ grandpa died of cancer, and my niece's mom died of cancer,” Brandi said. “So, I knew in their minds ‘cancer equals death.’” 

When Brandi did break the news to her children, she told them: “I will show you a different side of cancer.”

Kids Can Play a Role in Fighting Cancer

And then she enlisted both of them in the fight. “We told them I was going to be going in and out for a lot of doctors’ appointments so they needed to help out – with the laundry, the cleaning, the cooking. I think it helped with them knowing they had jobs so they wouldn’t feel so helpless,” Brandi said. 

“I hear more than anything from children of cancer patients that they always feel helpless, so giving the children jobs is very important. Even having my son rub my head on the nights that I had chemo… it wasn’t that important, but it was such a big deal in his world.”

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Strategies That Helped Brandi in Talking to Kids About Cancer

  • Because every family is different and every child is different, it can be helpful to get professional advice before breaking hard news to your children (read more about talking to kids about cancer). In Brandi’s situation, she and her husband did a number of things that worked well in helping their children process the emotionally and mentally challenging concepts of cancer.

  • Use age-appropriate explanations of difficult concepts but avoid lying.

  • Be prepared to explain things multiple times and consider alternative ways of explaining – such as roleplaying with toys or drawing pictures of cancer cells inside the body, or finding quality, educational videos – for concepts that are difficult to grasp mentally or are emotionally-charged for kids. In Brandi’s situation, one of the hardest moments was when she came home after shaving her head, which she had done with friends at her hair salon during a wine-drinking “cutting party” that was actually rather fun. But her son, who had just turned 6, started sobbing. “We had told him, but the reality wasn’t there until his mom came home bald. He climbed onto my lap and cried and cried. But kids are so resilient, they bounce back so quickly.”

  • And that dovetails with the next point: Children are resilient. Children can survive – and even thrive in – intensely challenging circumstances as long as at least one adult in their life provides stability, love, and support.

  • Follow their lead. If a child seems unphased about something, don’t dwell on it or emphasize it more, even if you think it’s important. Conversely, if they fixate on a certain thing (whether or not it seems important to you), validate their concerns and respond with as much information as they – and you – can handle sharing.

  • For children without a grasp of linear time, use comparisons that make sense. For example, Brandi’s treatment – including chemo and hormone suppression, plus a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction – was expected to take about a year. When explaining that timeframe to her son, she used milestones like “this will happen by next summer” or “before your next birthday.”

  • Tell children as early in the process as possible. For Brandi, it was particularly important that they weren’t kept in the dark until all the adults had all been informed. “I think it is so important that your children know before anybody else, if at all possible. They need to know that they are the most important people in the family, and they are part of all decisions that are being made.”

  • mom talking to son about cancerMake sure kids have “constant encouragement,” regular check-ins, and lots of support. But Brandi is quick to acknowledge that this doesn’t always have to be – and maybe shouldn’t be – from the parent undergoing cancer treatment. “I know it was hard for my children to look at me sometimes when I looked sick and felt sick. Those were the times I would tell them I thought they should go hang out at their friends’ house (or with someone supportive), and I think that took some pressure off of them.”

  • Give them outlets that suit their interests. For Brandi’s daughter, it was horseback riding. For her son, it was skateboarding. Not only is it a chance for physical and emotional release or creative expression, but it also keeps family life from revolving entirely around cancer.

  • Nevertheless, the final critical element to talking to kids about cancer is making certain you, the parents, are getting the support you need – from loved ones, therapists, support groups, beloved hobbies – both for your own sake and for your children as well.

Modeling Resilience: Provide Kids a Positive Role Model

A final important thing to remember when talking to your kids about cancer - and soldiering through cancer treatment - is that it’s helpful to provide a positive example. Your kids are watching you, during cancer treatment and always. What skills do you want them to see you use? Can you show them that you – and they – are capable of coping with challenges? 

Cancer survivor and family enjoy a beach vacation.Brandi was fortunate in that her breast cancer could be successfully treated and in her confidence that she would someday be cancer-free was emboldened. Early on, Brandi faced only one fleeting moment when she considered that she might not survive cancer. “I considered what my family would be like without me,” she said. “Could someone else be my husband’s wife and parent my kids? And that kind of lit a fire under me. It was the only time I considered I might not make it. And from then on, I felt confident in my survival.”

That confidence helped Brandi provide a positive example, reassurance, and support to the people around her. Thus, when her kids looked at her, they saw courage, incredible fortitude, a value for family, love, a sense of humor, and a life undaunted by cancer.

While many families will find much that resonates with them in Brandi’s story, there’s no “correct” way to tell your children about your cancer diagnosis. Watch this video from RMCC social workers to learn more about talking to kids about cancer. 

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