M. Maitland Deland, M.D., is a radiation oncologist specializing in the treatment of women’s and children’s cancer. She is also a mother of two and the daughter of a breast cancer survivor. Her book is called The Great Katie Kate Tackles Questions About Cancer.
She was nice enough so share some ideas in response to my questions about helping children when a family member or even they themselves have cancer.
When a grandparent has cancer, how much information needs to be shared with a child?
As with any other major crisis a family might face, each member of a family needs to be told what’s going on—even children as young as four or five. Children are very perceptive. They will sense the change in mood, the more frequent quiet conversations, the crying, closed doors and increase in phone calls. When a parent doesn’t tell the child what is going on, children tend to invent their own version of what is happening, and a child’s imagination is often far worse than reality. The most important thing is too keep the situation positive, because children tend to feed off of the emotions of their parents, and if Mom and Dad are optimistic, their kids tend to be optimistic as well.
My friend’s child has cancer. How can I help?
When the child of a friend is diagnosed with cancer, that friend’s needs will vary, depending upon whether they have other children or not. If your friend has only the child diagnosed with cancer, they will need your support as a friend and help with the household chores. If your friend has additional children, helping to take care of those children will allow you friend to focus on the sick child. Helping the children with their homework, making sure they have meals, or taking them to their extra-curricular activities are a few of the things you could do.
What are some common parenting mistakes that you observe when a family member has cancer?
The most common parenting mistake that is made is not discussing the cancer with each child in an age-appropriate manner. Treating cancer is a long process. It can involve many batteries of tests, surgeries, chemotherapy treatments and radiation therapy, and can last for many months. Children thrive on routine, so parents must make sure that in this new period of their lives that they establish a new routine. This should include what each person’s new responsibilities are within the family structure, as well as what is going on in the particular stage of the parent’s treatment, what the side-effects are, and how each child needs to behave around the sick parent. Most of all, parents need to remember not to overlook the fact that their children are suffering with them. Take time daily to discuss your child’s feelings, praise them for their small daily accomplishments, and reassure them that everything is going to be okay.
When your mother was struggling with breast cancer, what did you learn about how families cope?
Even in a medical family, when the word cancer is used, everyone still worries and struggles to understand. A cancer diagnosis makes you feel helpless. When it happened to me it made me realize that families must pull together and be on the same page for support and consistency. I learned how awful it feels to hear the word cancer, and how hard it is to deal with the uncertainty and fear, the treatment process, and constantly wondering, “Am I going to be okay? I learned that a family, even a family of caring doctors, cannot make everything perfect for their loved one. In the process of healing my mother taught me so much about the cancer patient’s fears, misconceptions and anxiety. I realized what kind of strength a family can provide when someone is suffering.
When my child is very sick with something like cancer, what can I do to make sure they get the best medical care possible?
I think the best thing anyone can do, in any medical situation, is to do their homework concerning what is available as far as treatment. When a person is being treated for cancer, they are receiving various therapies that are used to kill cancer cells. These therapies kill some non-cancerous cells as well, but the whole point is to do as little harm as possible to the areas surrounding the cancer. This takes a very skilled physician using the latest technologies to ensure that the cancer is being destroyed with as little collateral damage as possible. Look for a center that has extensive pediatric experience, as they are more familiar with the biological structure of immature organs.
For a child who has cancer, what difference will reading your book make?
The Great Katie Kate Tackles Questions About Cancer was written to not only to ease the tension in a young patient, but also to serve as a reference tool. Regardless of the age of the child, my book leads them through the entire treatment process and addresses all of the potential tests a patient with cancer may receive. It also addresses any physical discomfort that may arise from these tests. My ultimate goal for Katie Kate was to open a dialogue between a child and their parent on what challenges lie ahead, and to encourage the child to ask questions about the various possible treatment scenarios. I wanted to give parents a reference tool that can be used and a timeline on the course of treatment.