Breast cancer survivor: How I talked to my kids about cancer

When I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer in January 2017, my biggest fear
was how my kids would be affected.

My husband and I told our three young children right away. But we
were really apprehensive about what to say, so we spoke first with
Traci Newsome, a social work counselor at MD Anderson in the Bay Area.

Traci emphasized the importance of using the word “cancer” rather
than “sick,” to keep those concepts separate in young children’s
minds. Otherwise, they might think someone needs chemotherapy just because they have the flu. She
also said to be sure to say “MD Anderson
rather than just “hospital,” so the kids would know I was going
someplace special to treat my disease.

Explanations: Keep them simple

The baby was too young to really understand anything yet, but we
tried to keep our explanations simple. We told our older children that
doctors had found a spot of disease called cancer in my right breast.
We explained that chemotherapy and radiation were types of treatment that could make me better and that surgery would take the cancer out of my body.

It was hard to make a 4- and 5-year-old understand that something
which would ultimately help me get better (chemotherapy) would also
make me feel really bad at first. And we knew it would
be hard for them to watch me struggling. But we tried to give the kids
something positive to focus on. We told them that once my treatment
was done, we’d all go on vacation together and they could pick the
destination. They picked Disneyworld, of course, so right now, that
trip is set for next fall.

Keeping the cancer conversation going

Today, I am blessed to be cancer-free. But to get here, I’ve had to
endure six months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 30 rounds
of radiation, which I finally finished on November 9. And because genetic testing revealed my cancer was both
BRCA2+ and HER2+, I’ll be taking Herceptin for the next 10 months, too.

The BRCA2 gene mutation will always put me at a
greater risk for developing breast and ovarian cancers. My boys have already had
genetic testing done due to other issues, and thankfully, neither of
them carries the BRCA2 mutation. But I still don’t know about my
daughter, so I’ll need to have another conversation with her about
cancer when she’s older. That’s especially true because I was so young
when I was diagnosed.

How genetic testing could help my daughter

It never even occurred to me that the lump I found in my right
breast might be cancer. At the time, I was still nursing my youngest
child, so I figured it was just a clogged milk duct. And at only age
28, I thought, “Why would it be anything bad?” That’s a misconception
I think a lot of women my age have.

Today, I know a lot more about my family history, so I plan to share
that with my daughter. It turns out my paternal grandmother was
diagnosed with breast cancer in her 60s, but because that’s considered
fairly normal, she never had genetic testing done. I’ve since learned
that all of the women on her side of the family have had breast
cancer, too — and that all of the cancer in my kids’ background stems
exclusively from her.

When my daughter turns 18, I plan to recommend that she go straight
in and get tested, too. Since she was only 4 when I was diagnosed, she
might not remember me having cancer. But I want her to understand the
seriousness of it, so she doesn’t have to go through what I have.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by
calling 1-877-632-6789.