October Is Breast Cancer Awareness Month
Think pink in October for breast cancer awareness. According to the CDC, breast cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death for women in the U.S. We spoke to Julie Aigner Clark, founder of The Baby Einstein Company, mother of two kids, and 44-year-old breast cancer survivor about her tips for talking to kids about breast cancer. She recently published a picture book, “You Are the Best Medicine,” which helps kids understand what it means when a loved one has been dignosed with cancer. Proceeds for the book go to UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.
1- Your picture book, “You Are the Best Medicine,” shares tips for explaining cancer to children. What are some of the tips for moms to approach the topic with younger and older kids?
I don’t think kids younger than 5 need to know more than ”Mommy is sick and has to take medicine that makes her feel bad for awhile.” Here are my tips:
- Be honest but don’t explain too much. Think of it as talking to kids about sex. The older they get, the more you can go into the specifics.
- Let them know how much they can help just by loving you. Ask them to read to you, crawl into bed with you, and snuggle. Kids really are the best medicine!
- Tell them right away that they can’t “catch” cancer from you, no matter what. This seems obvious, but kids are quite literal. They’ve been told to stay away from sick people!
- Take them with you, once, to a chemo appointment. This takes the mystery out of what’s going on while you’re at the doctor. Explain the IV, the fluids, and the process to the degree that they’ll understand.
If kids do want to understand a little more about why or how a parent (or someone else they know) is sick, there are also excellent children’s books. One that explains cancer really well is “Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings” by Ellen McVicker, a fellow survivor. My own book shares how important love is to a parent going through treatment and focuses on the non-medical parts of the illness that kids can expect.
2- How did your own breast cancer experience with your daughters inspire you to develop these tips?
My kids were 6 and 9 the first time I was diagnosed; they were 11 and 13 the second time. I wish I’d been more open with them the second time around, when they were old enough to know that this is a life-threatening disease. I was trying to deal with the diagnosis myself, especially the stage 4 part. I was scared and sad, and I tried to protect my kids, but they knew. Our children understand us, and anxiety is a pretty powerful emotion to cover up. I did my best, but in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t tried to hide my fear.
3- Are there things moms should avoid saying or doing when talking about breast cancer with their kids? Was there anything you learned not to say or do?
I never said I might die from this cancer. I still don’t want to say that. I need my kids to believe that I’ll be okay. They know everyone dies eventually, some way or another, but I don’t want them to live in daily fear.
4- Is there anything that moms should know about breast cancer checkups, diagnosis, and treatments?
I found the cancer on my own, both times. It was tiny — like a little, hard pea deep beneath my skin, closer to my arm pit. Do breast exams monthly. Early diagnosis is better than late. Pay attention to the “grade” (aggressiveness) of a tumor. Though I was only stage 1 the first time, I was grade 3. This meant that my cancer was very, very mean. Had I really understood this, I might have treated my cancer even more aggressively the first time.
5- What advice would you give to other moms who have received a similar diagnosis or are currently going through treatment?
The web site that I found to be the most informative was inspire.org. This was where I learned so much from others going through treatment, from specific meds to hair growth information.
6- Breast cancer, no matter the stage or treatment, can be a frightening and uncertain time. What are the things that continued to strengthen and encourage you during your experience?
My husband. My kids. My friends. I don’t know how I would have done it, otherwise. Although I didn’t get involved in organized support groups, I found that reaching out to other survivors was very helpful.
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