No one wants to read this article. I recommend you skip it if you don’t have any female friends.
Except you do.
And cancer happens.
Even to people like you and me.
Breast cancer is the number one cause of death in women 15 to 54, according to the National Cancer Institute 2005 Fact Book, and The American Cancer Society says that by age forty, the probability of developing breast cancer is 1 in 68; by fifty, it’s 1 in 37.
That means it’s likely that we will know a woman with young children who will be diagnosed with cancer, a mom friend whose life is overturned by the diagnosis, who, instead of going about her regular day with work and kids and friends, must fight for her life. She’s researching, visiting doctors, scheduling treatments, and she’s scared. You are her friends. You can help.
Learn the many things you can do to support a mom with cancer. Here are some practical ideas to get you started.
- Babysit. Schedule times to watch her kids. If you want to get really fancy, set up a babysitting or playdate schedule on the Signup Genius website.
- Food. Feed her family. The Caring Meals website organizes meals and delivery. Don’t forget about yummy kid snacks and treats, too.
- Money. Set up a fund for medical and travel expenses through your bank or PayPal. Even with insurance, co-pays and medicine add up.
- Blog. Set the family up with a free Caring Bridge blog. Updates go to friends and family all at once, so mom doesn’t have to give the same update sixty times in one day.
- Books. Kids and parents benefit from reading stories about other’s experiences. See sidebar for book recommendations. Older children benefit from knowing they’re not alone; stories often are the best way, support groups are another.
Normalcy. “Treat the kids normally,” says breast cancer survivor Michelle Holbrook. “Play with them, feed them (often I was too sick to do this myself); love them. Attempt to show them that all is okay, life goes on, even when the road gets a little bumpy.”
Same goes with the mom – treat her normally. Don’t call every day to check on her sickness. Understand that she might want to talk about regular life, not cancer. (How about the price of grapes these days?)
Listen to the kids. Elizabeth MacDougall’s sister has stage-two breast cancer. MacDougall shares, “My nine-year-old nephew, Sam, gave his mom a note to give to me. It said, ‘Please take good care of my mom, I’m really scared.'” MacDougall realized she needed to spend more time with Sam to help him process his fears through talking, drawing, or workbooks.
Remind the children that their mom loves them very much, that her doctors are very good and they are using the best medicines to make her get better. Sometimes children think that they did something wrong and somehow caused their mother’s cancer or that it might be contagious. Reassure them that those things aren’t true.
- Toys for the kids. Kimmie Dolls are unique dolls especially for children whose moms have cancer; chemo bears are bears in a t-shirt or scrubs.
You may see poor behavior from the kids, says MacDougall. “We saw a lot of acting out – fighting and tantrums. The kids were used to my sister, Paige, being a stay-at-home mom, but she couldn’t always take care of them anymore. Other people were staying with them, and they were going on lots of play dates. They just didn’t know how to handle it.”
Let My Colors Out
Mom and the Polka-Dot Boo Boo
Mommy Has to Stay in Bed
The poor behavior comes when a child lacks the coping skills to deal with his or her emotions. “Allow them to cry, be sad, be scared. These are all very normal and healthy reactions to learning of a mom’s cancer,” says Holbrook.
Allison Donohue, a child life specialist at Children’s Hospital in Denver, adds: “Providing choices and honesty are the best ways to help a child. Keeping them a part of the treatment team can be very healing and empowering.” She recommends saying something like: “Today mommy is having her chemo medicine. This is the one that makes her tummy upset and tired.”
Donohue also suggests giving the children jobs to make them feel part of the treatment. You might tell them, “When mommy gets home tonight, she would love to have a card from you or have you lay down with her and read her a story.”
Carrie Host, a mother of three and author of the memoir Between Me and the River, Living Beyond Cancer, writes how much she loved her children’s gifts. She vividly remembers a poem her daughter wrote “literally began the healing process.” Host often gave her kids the job of “playing quietly” with the promise that when she woke up, she would spend time with them.
Another idea from Host is using pretend play to help children understand treatments. She recommends acting out scenarios with stuffed animals to explain chemotherapy, radiation, surgery or losing hair. The stuffed animals can be the children, the mom or the doctor. Pretend play gives children a safe way to express their feelings. If facilitated by an adult, the play can be instructional and used to explain the words and concepts of cancer.
Host confesses how hard it can be: “Cancer makes you feel like you’re failing as a mother by having cancer. It’s terrible.” But she learned to embrace Theodore Roosevelt’s philosophy: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
Let’s do what we can for our mom friends with cancer.