October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Pink is everywhere and it is good to raise funds for research and spread awareness. But for families who have a loved one diagnosed with breast cancer, every day is a pink day as they live with the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. These are what I call pink families. “An individual doesn’t get cancer, a family does,” says Terry Tempest Williams
What is it like to be a family member of someone dealing with breast cancer?
It means that life as you knew it is over. It means seeing your once healthy mother sick from chemotherapy. It means becoming a caretaker of the one who usually takes care of the family. It means medicines, and doctor’s appointments, and surgeries. It means change. And change is scary.
These changes are difficult for adults, but imagine what they are like for the children in those pink families. Christina Eberhard shares what it was like to hear about her mother’s diagnosis on the Kids Cope website. http://www.kidscope.org (The website also has a great video for kids whose parent has breast cancer.)
I was upstairs watching television later that afternoon when my mom and dad came up from downstairs with terrified books on their faces. I remember exactly what was said. My mom said, “Cassandra, I’m sorry but I have breast cancer”. I looked almost straight into my mother’s eyes because I was almost the same height and I realized that she would be different. Her blond hair wouldn’t be there soon and she would be more tired than ever, and then I just broke down crying. Questions buzzed around my head. Why my mom? Why my family? The room felt like it was spinning around. I looked at Lindsay who was usually an outgoing 17-year-old with curly hair, who looked like she would never talk again. Then I looked at my dad, whom I have never seen cry that much in my life, had tears dripping down his face. My mom hugged me, trying to comfort me, but nothing could ease the pain I was feeling inside.
That pain, confusion, fear is often the elephant in the room for families living with a breast cancer diagnosis. In addition, family members have lost the life they once had together before the diagnosis. That is a lot of feelings for an adult to cope with, but even more overwhelming for a child; but not if they get support.
Even families who had really good communication before the diagnosis will struggle with how to support their kids during this time. It is painful to talk about. Parents will often avoid talking about it thinking they are protecting their children and children will avoid talking about it in order to protect their parents. So how to deal with that big pink elephant?
Eda LeShan says that, “A child can live with anything as long as he or she is told the truth and is allowed to share with loved ones the natural feelings people have when they are suffering.” Children that are not told the truth about what is happening actually have more anxiety than those who are told what is happening. The bigger the elephant of what is not being talked about the greater will be the fear and anxiety for children in the family. Sharing with children what is happening will help them cope and feel supported. It will help them have permission to talk about their feelings with others. Another general rule of sharing about a parent’s illness is that less is more. Share the basic facts in an age appropriate manner and then invite children to ask for more information when and if they need it.
It is also helpful to find places where children can have someone else to talk to other than their parent. Finding a good counselor is helpful, but actually any caring trusted adult can provide support. Children whose parents are ill often feel very self-conscious, especially teens who do not want to be different in any way. Look in your area for support groups for children whose parents have been diagnosed with cancer. Getting peer support helps kids feel less alone.
Someone I know who had breast cancer had someone say to her, “It must be awful!” And her response was, “Must it be?” Being a pink family will be hard and painful. But it can also be a time of connecting together in a new way as a family; a time where a family can develop resilience, empathy and compassion. It can be a time where family members can say the important things to one another that they often don’t take the time to say in their busy and previously cancer free lives.
So this month as we remember those who are living with breast cancer, those who have died from the disease, let us also provide some extra support to those pink families in our midst.