Standing on the porch with her parents, our two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter waved at a passing plane, “Bye Grammie and Papa.” Her bright eyes and sun-kissed cheeks radiated love. “They’re going to get Papa’s cancer,” she said.
While the plane at which she waved was random, the experience was not. My husband and I were traveling from our home in Minneapolis towards a five-week residency in Chicago. A clinical trial at the University offered hope in reigning in an aggressive cancer that had resisted three previous lines of treatment. But it meant that we were to be separated from our granddaughter and family for a month.
Unexpected Relationship with Cancer
Taking care of my granddaughter and taking care of loved ones with cancer has been my full-time job since my granddaughter was born. As a young baby, she would go with me to my friend Ann’s house. Ann’s four children would play with her as I would help with hospice care for their mom. A week before Ann passed, my husband was diagnosed. Cancer had inadvertently become part of my granddaughter’s narrative.
This winter, our granddaughter began having treatment-resistant ear infections. She spent days in her pajamas with barely enough energy to play. Luckily for all, she was cooperative in taking a variety of medications that would “make her ears better.”
After months of remission, my husband’s cancer resurfaced in February, and I realized that we were saying the same things about him as we were about our her ear infections and treatment. “Papa is going to the doctor to feel better.” While she could relate to Papa “being sick,” we wanted her to know that the illnesses were very different.
We started using the words, “the cancer”.
Very young children don’t need many details, but do need accurate and understandable information.
Be specific about the impact of cancer as the child experiences it. “The cancer makes Papa tired so he can’t play today.”
Reassure your toddler that grownups will help. “Doctors help with the cancer.”
Allow for emotions happen. “The cancer makes mama sad.”
Even as adults, thinking of cancer separate from the person is beneficial. On particularly bad days, I often say to my husband, “I am not mad at you. I am mad at the cancer.” Letting the cancer be the thing that needs treatment, separates us, and makes us sad, allows us to protect our relationships and our sense of security.
Practice Here and Now
Toddlers and preschoolers process what is happening in the here and now. Don’t fret about finding the right time or place to have the “big talk.”
Use diagnosis and treatment to break up the discussion into toddler-size chunks. “Papa is going to the doctor to help with the cancer.”
Stick with the facts of the day. “The cancer makes Papa sleepy today.”
Don’t be surprised when your preschooler accepts the fact that Papa can’t play and respond by asking to play with trains or have a snack.
If you missed responding as you wished the first time, don’t worry, young children revisit experiences many times. Listen and respond when it comes up again.
Young children process through play. While it might feel uncomfortable to have your child pretend she has cancer, this is a great opportunity to help her process.
There are many things toddlers can teach us about acceptance. By practicing what toddlers do naturally —present moment awareness, we fortify our resiliency and reduce the burden of the unknown. Cancer and cancer treatment can change so quickly, we all do better when we don’t get too far ahead.
When adverse things happen, be confident that you can help your children and yourself.
Our granddaughter is our daily dose of joy. She brightens our days with her enthusiastic embraces, constant curiosity, and love for singing, running, and reading books. Now, photos and text messages document each activity and accomplishment. FaceTime and video chatting helps us feel not so far apart.
Talk about the specifics of the child’s day. “At the zoo, did you feed the big or the little goats?”
Sing favorite songs together.
While video chatting, ask your toddler to show you the dog or an activity like jumping up and down.
Have a book to unwrap each day or week you are away. Library book sales are an inexpensive place to stock up. “Since I can’t hug you, I sent a book for you to hug.”
We all do better with supportive, responsive, and sensitive relationships. During times of uncertainty and grief — friends, support groups, and therapy can strengthen us and provide stability. When we have someone to hold our experience, we are more available to hold that of our children.
“Yes, they are going to get the cancer.”