As a mom, I do everything I can to shield my kids from harm. (I'm guessing my mom passed THAT gene to me.) I can still hear my mom's voice. Circa July, 2006. We were in the exam room waiting for the doctor. The nurse mistakenly said something thinking the doctor already called me. She thought I knew. I didn't. My mom's words, "I wish there were a way for me to do this for you."
I was an adult. I had a daughter in college, away at college, far enough away that flying was the required method of transportation. Although she was insulated from much of the day to day living in Cancerland, I know it was on her mind and from recent comments, I know it's still on her mind. My niece is in her teens. She went on emotional overload when she learned that my mom is being treated for cancer again. I don't know what is running through her head. Is she remembering the amount of time it took for my sister, her mom, to recover from surgery? Is she afraid for her grandmother? Her mom? Herself??
Cancer takes its toll on everyone. As the gap between now and the days of active treatment widens, I can look through the cancer prism using the eyes of my loved ones. Their need for support, sometimes minimized, often unmet can not be overstated. When I was first diagnosed, one of my friends came for a visit armed with books. One of them was for my husband. It's still on a small bookcase behind his desk. Written by Marc Silver, Breast Cancer Husband provides stellar, solid suggestions for the spouses.
Recently, Marc co-authored a book with one of his daughters. Maya and Marc have given me a peek into the challenges that I did not have to face. Parenting a teen, OR being a teen can be difficult enough--add in a mom with breast cancer and ...... well, I'll let Marc and Maya speak for themselves.
I've turned over today's blog so they can give us all a little glimpse into what their lives were like when Breast Cancer turned their home into CancerLand. And then, some suggestions to perhaps prevent the picture Maya paints when she says the family "put our heads down......until it was over ...... (so) we could all come up for air."
My Parent Has Cancer: Now Keep Talking!
Marc: My daughter Maya is on the sofa watching TV. I’m about to run out into the cold February night to pick up some ginger candies for my wife, Marsha, who’s feeling a bit unsettled after her chemotherapy treatment a few days before.
“Heading out to get something for mom, be right back,” I call to my 15-year-old daughter.
“How is she doing?” asks Maya.
In my head I think: “But you could ask her yourself because mom is upstairs in the very same house in which you are watching TV!” But I bite my tongue because I don’t want to rag on Maya.
Maya: I may as well have handed my dad a postcard, reading, "Hey Mom! How have you been? Wish you were here (on the couch)!" and asked him to deliver it to her bedroom upstairs, where I didn't really want to go. I am ashamed to admit that I really didn't like being in my mom's presence when she was that sick.
When my mom was going through treatment for breast cancer, communication in our family did have its weaker moments. We didn't all talk as a family very often. I didn't know that my dad was struggling. He never asked how Daniela (my sister) or I were doing. More or less, we all put our heads down and scraped our feet through the experience until it was over and we could all come up for air.
Marc: Now that my daughter and I have written My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks, a book on teens facing a parent’s cancer, we’ve learned that there are a lot of ways to keep up, depending on the family’s style.
1. The family meeting. Maybe you have a tradition of family meetings already. Then add a section or an extra meeting called “putting cancer in its place,” suggests psychiatrist Karen Weihs, Medical Director for Supportive Care at the University of Arizona Cancer Center in Tucson. Here’s what’s up with the cancer treatment – and what’s up with you? Any questions? Anything you’d like to share?
2. The car. If you are the designated driver to get your teen to school or the mall or a friend’s house, use the car as a vehicle for communication as well. No need to look each other in the eyes. Just talk about what’s up with cancer – and also what’s up in the world of teenagers. Your kids may still want to talk to you about the latest boyfriend/girlfriend scandal at school – and it’s great to talk about things other than cancer during this period. In Planet Teenager, life does go on.
3. The journal. Keep a notebook in a conspicuous place. Mom and/or dad, write down the latest cancer developments. Encourage the kids to write their questions as well. And then you can answer the questions.
4. The post-it note. Maybe your teen is a minimalist. A post-it note in a prominent place – the bathroom mirror, the fridge – can help keep the conversation going. It might be as simple as: “Dad has chemo today, home around 6 p.m., can you order pizza for dinner?”
5. Respect your teen’s communication style. Not every teen is a talker. If your kid isn’t up for a conversation, don’t force it. On the other hand, don’t assume that the lack of conversation means you don’t need to keep the family up-to-date on cancer bulletins. The mental health experts we interviewed suggest telling your kids, in a straightforward way, what’s going on with the treatment. And then follow up the next day or so: Did we give you too much info? Was it helpful? Is there anything more you want to know?
You can read a bit about Mark and Maya on their website. Mom and wife, Marsha was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer in 2001. Tumors were found in both of her breasts. Today, she is in good health.