Deanna’s Discoveries: Helping kids cope

November 27, 2018 09:28 AM

When you're diagnosed with cancer, you don't get cancer alone.  

Your whole family is affected, especially your children. 


I have breast cancer, and I have three children, the youngest of whom are just six and nine. 

So, in this edition of Deanna's Discoveries, we tackle the topic of helping kids cope.

Every night my two youngest children cuddle with me on my bed while I read one of a dozen children's books we have about the cancer journey.

In each of the stories, the mother has cancer and the family struggles to find their way in what is always an emotional journey. Therapists believe you should talk to your children about the cancer in an age-appropriate way, and children's books are a wonderful tool.

Children are aware that something is happening, and they need your reassurance.

"I think you have to let your kids know that this is something that you're very open about talking about and that you're going to be truthful with them," said Judy Zeeman-Golden, social worker and coordinator of URMC's Integrative Oncology Department.

Zeeman-Goldman believes the issue is so important that she wrote a book about it called, Talking to Children About Cancer. 

It's a wonderful resource that is available at no cost to patients getting treatment at URMC

I explained to my young children that the cancer formed blobs in my breasts, and the chemo is strong medicine that makes the blobs melt away.
Then, my daughter asked the question that made me take a deep breath. "Mommy, what if the chemo doesn't make the cancer go away," she asked quietly.

Zeeman-Goldman says if your children ask you that question, you should first thank them for asking. 

You want your children to feel free to talk to you about their fears and concerns.

Zeeman-Golden says you can reassure them by saying, "If this chemotherapy doesn't work, this is Plan A. And after this, if this doesn't work. There is Plan B."

That's how I answered the question as well. 

But in the minds of my kids, chemo was a beast that made mommy sick.

There constant questions indicated that chemo frightened them. So, I called one of the social workers at Pluta Cancer Center in Rochester and arranged for my children to take a tour of the cancer center. 

They played with the therapy dogs, got candy from the staff, and sat in the same chair I sit in for chemo.

"Being able to do that helps them detoxify the experience and makes it less scary for them," said Zeeman-Golden.

My kids have also started attending Noogieland at Gilda's Club of Rochester. It looks like  a colorful playroom where kids can play with abandon. 

But it's so much more.  

Every child there has a loved one with cancer. The kids can go to the playroom while mom or dad attends a support group.

"It's nice to know that their children are right downstairs safe with volunteers and staff members," said Jennifer Johnson, program director at Gilda's Club of Rochester.  

Gilda's Club also has a wealth of programs for children touched by cancer from summer camps to karate classes. 

Camp Good Days is another summer camp for children touched by cancer.  

Like Gilda's Club, its camps and services are provided to children at no cost to participants.

These kinds of programs provide a safe space to just be a kid. When a parent has cancer, your child's world is inexorably changed because you're changed.

"You don't have the same amount of energy physically, mentally to deal with what's happening with your children," said Zeeman-Golden.

That's certainly the case with me.

Now, I need nap when I get home from work. In fact, the fatigue and my constant need for coffee has become the family joke. 

My son makes the family giggle by imitating my snoring. Laughter is essential in helping our family cope with cancer. 

Therapists say you must be open with your children. Kids get it when you talk about it, and love them through it. And you will get through it - together.

Here's a list of my favorite children's books about cancer. These books are appropriate for elementary age children.

Hair for Mama by KellyTinkham
Punk Wig, by Lori Ries
The Hope Tree by Laura Numeroff and Wendy S Harpham, MD
Cancer Rhymes with Dancer by Linda McCowan
When Mommy Loses Her Hair by Cristen Cervellini-Calfo
A Mom of Many Hats by Debbie Fink, MA and Lisa Perea Hane,, MFA 
The Rainbow Feelings of Cancer by Carrie Martin and Chia Martin

Judy Zeeman-Golden, LCSW compiled a wonderful list in her book.  She has allowed me to share it here.


Deanna Dewberry

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