Breast cancer survivors often report how this life-altering experience propels them to rethink the way they conduct their lives once treatment is finished. Changes to their goals, diet and lifestyle are common and largely beneficial – and for recovering mums with young children, this invariably manifests in examining how they parent.
In my case, this meant resolving to parent my young kids as mindfully as possible. Though it was a suitably grim time, cancer had gifted me with an insight into the fragility of life, and every minute with my children would now count.
After a year and half of chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, cramming in positive memories for my little ones became my raison d’etre. Inevitably, it also became a burden comprised of exhaustion and lashings of guilt at not having made the most of every minute.
Clinical psychologist Toni Lindsay, from the Sydney integrated cancer centre Chris O’Brien’s Lifehouse, says, “People often speak with me about the cancer highlighting the importance of family and shifting focus after treatment. This can be a double-sided coin, however, as with this awareness and priority often comes lots of pressure.”
Wanting to make the most out of life after getting a glimpse of how short it can be is understandable, but what are the repercussions for the children?
“Although it might feel counterintuitive, only allowing children to have positive experiences gives them less exposure to emotionally difficult situations,” Lindsay explains. “In turn, it results in them feeling more overwhelmed if something emotionally challenging comes to them.”
The irony of this would not be lost on cancer survivor parents who adopt an over-protective approach. Cancer gives a tangible awareness that horrible things can happen, resulting in parents wanting to cushion their children from the trials of life at all costs.
This desire to spare the children from anything remotely painful is very familiar to my friend Jane*, who I first met in the chemotherapy trenches. “Breast cancer morphed me into a bit of a helicopter parent,” she says. “My husband jokingly hums at me when I start hovering. I spend a lot of time worrying, trying to prevent my children from getting hurt, both physically and emotionally.”
Of course, treating cancer can take considerable time, with side effects from chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgeries often separating patients from their children. Undergoing a mastectomy or having painful radiation burns means mothers are unable to hold their young children, sometimes for weeks.
The guilt of being unavailable can create a strong desire to make up for lost time, to be just like a healthy parent – or sometimes even better than the average parent. However, depending on their treatments, cancer survivors may find their cognitive abilities are impaired, and experience issues with memory and executive function. This can make parenting even more demanding, leading to increasing frustration.
Sydney breast surgeon Dr Davendra Segara says that if you’ve experienced breast cancer, you can’t compare yourself to normal parents: “You just need to do the best you can and not give yourself a hard time about your limitations.”
Fear can also be a motivator for how survivors parent, often stemming from anxiety about the cancer reoccurring. The idea of another period of separation from your children, or not surviving another battle should the cancer return, can change how survivor mothers parent in a negative way. For instance, some survivor mothers in my circle actively avoid discussing breast cancer with their young daughters, in order to shield them from the fear they themselves feel.
But Lifehouse’s Toni Lindsay believes a more honest approach, packaged in an age appropriate way, can be beneficial.
“Children have a natural gift of innocence and curiosity, and generally see things as their parents frame them, so if parents are open with their kids about what is happening – for example, what their scars mean – it is often more reassuring than being secretive and fearful.”
The Cancer Australia website features statistics confirming that both diagnosis of breast cancer and survivorship has been steadily increasing each year. It’s crucial that the resulting challenges survivor parents face are addressed, so they’re able to successfully reintegrate their role within their family in the aftermath of treatment.
With each survivor being an individual, there are myriad ways in which they might respond to their experience. While trying to navigate how to raise children after breast cancer is complex, the key is learning to apply knowledge in an appropriate and balanced way.
*Name has been changed
Specific cancer-related counseling is advisable and readily available should survivors feel they are struggling or overwhelmed. GPs or cancer specialists such as oncologists can refer survivors and their family members to the appropriate services.