When going through the first year of my break-up I wrote a diary and poems to express my feelings, but when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for some reason I wanted a wider audience – a blog which I could put all my emotions and frustrations of what is like for me living day to day with breast cancer and that perhaps by my sharing these would help or inspire others going through the same thing. I think blogging can be seen as a little indulgent but I also wanted something of a record of this time for my son to be able to read in later years and just to let him know how proud of and how much I love him. Because It’s not just me living with cancer day by day, but my son as well, albeit in a different way.
I asked my son recently what does he really feel about my cancer and he replied “honestly mum when I heard you had cancer it wasn’t such a shock, I felt this was just another crisis to get through”. He felt that over the years there had been one crisis after another and this was just another one to get through, and there would be more in the future. I wasn’t quite sure how to take this – lack of empathy - but sadly I thought over the years he has experienced the divorce, moving suddenly away from all he had known from birth, his father disowning and rejection of him, my depression, going to secondary school, his living environment, adapting himself to fit in with new people and family around him and making a whole new set of friends, and my monetary pressure. It’s not been easy for him - he has been incredibly resilient and other than a few incidents over the years he is on the main well-behaved and responsible, doesn’t get into serious trouble and is doing quite well at school. He is a bright boy, has made some good friends at school and some in the voluntary community through being a cycling star, has made many contacts in the area through, of all things, walking the dog, and is trying to set up his own web-design business – having now his first two clients. But, don’t get me wrong, he is still has his own mood swings, anxieties, back chat, bossiness, over-confidence, selective hearing and everything else that goes with being a teenager - so he is no angel!
I know he will hate me mentioning him so specifically in this blog, but I do worry about how my having cancer is affecting him and if I am supporting him well while he copes with my mood swings and the extra responsibilities he has had to take on.
I have been honest with my son from the start with regard to my cancer – I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to and he needed to know the treatment I would have to go through and how it would affect me. At school just before I started my first chemo they were going to through immune systems and he learnt all about white blood cells etc. Through this he was able to ask questions about cancer and the chemo treatment from his teachers and this managed to answer a lot of questions for him. Apparently involving children and letting them know what is happening, to include them in what I happening generally helps them cope better with a parent's illness particularly if they are teenagers. I made the school aware of each stage of my treatments and asked them to keep an eye of my son and offer any help if he needed even to just talk to someone. This they did, but my son has not wanted to talk about it. I asked him if his friends spoke to him about my cancer and he said only if he took the lead which he sometimes did. He also talks to his granddad now and again about any problems that crop up, and to some friends. My son is now also opening up to me a bit more but I think he is worried about talking to me about his own feelings for fear of upsetting me. I am glad he has some outlet although I know this might sound slightly silly but I am worried the he seems to be coping too well when he could be inside feeling very scared, angry and isolated.
I came across some advice from The National Cancer Institute in America which was a guide for teens, giving tips and ideas on how to talk about your parent having cancer and how to cope with it. Here are some extracts:
For the Teenager
· Many teens feel like their parent’s cancer is always on their mind. Others try to avoid it. Try to strike a balance. You can be concerned about your parent and still stay connected with people and activities that you care about.
· You may feel bad about having fun when your parent is sick. However, having fun doesn’t mean that you care any less. In fact, it will probably help your parent to see you doing things you enjoy.
· A lot of people are uncomfortable sharing their feelings. They ignore them and hope they’ll go away. Other people choose to act cheerful when they’re really not. They think that by acting upbeat they won’t feel sad or angry anymore. This may help for a little while, but not over the long run. Actually, holding your feelings inside can keep you from getting the help you need.
· Many kids think that they need to protect their parents by not making them worry. They think that they have to be perfect and not cause any trouble because one of their parents is sick. If you feel this way, remember that no one can be perfect all the time. You need time to vent, to feel sad, and to be happy. Try to let your parents know how you feel—even if you have to start the conversation.
· Cancer treatment and its side effects can be difficult to go through. Anger sometimes comes from feelings that are hard to show, such as fear or frustration. Chances are your parent is angry at the disease, not at you.
· Let your parents know if you feel that there is more to do than you can handle. Together, you can work it out. Your mom or dad may ask you to take on more responsibility than other kids your age. You might resent it at first. Then again, you may learn a lot from the experience and grow to appreciate the trust your parents have in you.
· It can be hard to stay calm when you aren’t sure what the future holds. You may be thinking—will my parent survive cancer? Will the cancer come back? Will life ever be the same? Will I laugh again? Many teens say that having a parent with cancer has made them more sympathetic, more responsible, and stronger.
For the Parent
· Don’t criticise more than you praise. Children are built up by praise and will go on doing what they are praised for - to get more praise! If they are criticised all the time, they are more likely to go on doing what they are criticised for. At least that way they get attention.
· You’re tired, busy and irritable, and you shout at your child. Your child turns away, dispirited and dejected. What do you do? Tell yourself you’re a failure and that you may as well give up? No! The last thing you want is for your self-esteem to descend to your boots! We’ve all done things we regret and we don’t need to drag heaps of guilt around with us.
· Instead, go after your child, apologise, explain that the way you reacted wasn’t her/his fault - and start building your child up again as soon as possible. It will work - every time. Self-esteem - or the lack of it - springs from a child's deeply ingrained experiences of how others, particularly their parents, relate to them. The words they hear and the attitudes they experience create your child's sense of their intrinsic value. The messages they pick up from you are bound to affect the way they see themselves - either positively or negatively.
· When it comes to building self-esteem, there is no substitute for simply saying as often as you can "I love you"; "You're great"; "I'm so proud of you". And the best time for doing it is when your words are not a reward for anything specific they have done.
· Take the time to leave a legacy of happy memories for your children – whether in big ways or small, and whether they happen spontaneously or require a little planning. Those times of fun, excitement, laughter, creativity and helpless side-splitting hilarity are experiences you will never regret.
Looking at this led me to think more about stress itself and how both my son and I could manage it better.Children say they know when their parents are stressed because they yell more, become more critical, argue with other people in the household, and complain. Older children can be stressed by peer pressure and by the expectations of parents, teachers, and coaches. Going to school can bring elevated levels of stress each year. It is important that you, as a parent, model positive stress management techniques. If you cannot manage your own stress, you will not be able to help your child manage his.
Children react in different ways to stress. Some children become ill. Some may become withdrawn and nervous while others show anger and demand attention. There are also some children who do not seem bothered by stress. We often call these children resilient. We sometimes only think that negative things cause stress but positive events can also be causes for stress. Family events are often a source of stress for children. We all know the well-known negative stresses, break-up of a family, physical abuse, separation, and rejection; parent being ill and job pressures etc. But positive events can also cause such as birthday parties, family parties, new pets, and the birth of new siblings. Even family obligations and routines can create stress and tension and in the case of an active family that may be so busy that the needs of a child may be overlooked.
Children who isolate themselves from other children may be feeling stress and also those who are easily agitated, irritable, lethargic, lazy, or aggressive. Changes in behaviour are also a sign. For example, a friendly, quiet child who suddenly has been fighting and arguing with his friends may be suffering from stress.
So what can I do to manage my own and my son’s stress:-
1. Be open and honest - tell your children what’s happening, why you are anxious and how you are feeling -- just make sure you discuss it at a level they can understand.
Promoting a positive environment can help, for example praising children for the acceptable things that they do. Helping children see and understand the positive things about themselves and that they are worthwhile persons. Listen without judging the child or the situation; that is, if the child chooses to tell you about the situation that produced the stress. Help the child feel comfortable in expressing feelings and help the child in clarifying his or her feelings. You may need to correct any misconceptions that the child about certain situations.
Helping children through stories can help - Sometimes children can't talk to us about the distress they feel. They may not have the words or the concepts to easily express themselves. They may feel shy, embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed. If you try to talk to them using adult logic, most children will "turn off." Some stories can be therapeutic which help children feel better and cope better with their fears and problems. Telling children stories about children with feelings just like theirs helps them realize that other children have been through the situation too.
Unresolved anger can be a potent source of stress. It is not whether you get angry but how you get angry that is important. Your child needs to know that anger is OK to be angry, but he has to learn how to express is so that others can hear it. Role playing a situation can be good.
2. Present a plan of action - you don’t need to come up with a solution, only a next step. Be proactive against stress. Develop a plan to deal with your child's potentially stressful situations.
Take baby steps. Help your child break down what needs to be accomplished into small, manageable steps.
Set up special time each day with your child. Spend 15 minutes a day just to talk, following your child's lead. If they don’t feel like talking and would rather do something else, do what they want to do. They may talk with you when you least expect it!.
3. Identify your most stressful time - it’s easier to manage stress when you know when you’re must vulnerable to it. It could be when you are getting them ready for school, or when they get home from school or other times when you are finding it difficult to cope.
Make sure your child is not overcommitted. Children need time to relax and play at home. Prioritize your child's activities and drop ones that are not necessary. Although getting physical helps reduce body tension associated with stress stretching all the major muscle groups. Also is the TV/Computer--Stress reliever or stress enhancer? Make sure your child's television watching and computer game playing are stress relievers not stress enhancers. Just because your child wants these mediums to decompress from the world does not mean that your child needs these mediums. Many TV and computer programs are extremely violent and competitive. This can easily increase your child's stress rather than decrease it.
Have a weekly family meeting or sit down and eat at the table each evening and ask each person at the to let each other know what was a good thing about their day and what was a bad thing about their day – this can open up honest discussion and identify what may be a stressful situation for both you and your child.
Make sure your child eats well and sleeps well. Feed your child healthy, nutritious meals and snacks. Stress wipes out essential nutrients from our bodies. Give your child predictable bedtimes that allow them age-appropriate amounts of sleep.
4. Welcome other people - no matter what’s going on in your life, it’s always easier to handle setbacks with the support of others. The same goes for children too. So bring people into your lives instead of shutting them out when times are tough. Socializing and talking to others helps diffuse anxious feelings. It’s important for kids to know that they aren’t alone.
5. Plan for fun too - if you want to reduce your family stress, shift the focus from problems to pleasure – find some fun things to do together.
Manage your own stress well. Cut back at work if you can to be more available to your children. Use stress reducing exercises. Teach yourself and your child deep breathing or close your eyes and imagine a pleasant trip or a favourite memory. This technique of visual imagery or "relaxing daydreaming" is a great way to reduce stress. Your child might enjoy a nightly massage to relax him and help him sleep or if he does not like massage, try a "back tickle", gently and lightly stroking your child's back.
I would like to say I do all of the above, but I don’t and sometimes I don’t manage my own stress well either my own needs overriding my son's needs – we are all human. At the moment we have another bit of added stress with our lodger. She has her own issues and problems and is managing her stress by alcohol every day with her personality changing – this is something which at the moment neither I nor my son are dealing with very well. The good news is that I have now been given a Band B for bidding for a council house so we know that hopefully this situation will not last long. The sooner we have our own place to live just my son and I the better we will be able to manage our stress levels.Each time I approach my next chemo I get a little more stressed, I want to prepare for it – the house tidier, laundry all sorted and shopping done. I put upon my son to help me. While recovering from chemo my energy levels are so low that I again put upon my son to help out more. He hates this, doesn’t want the responsibility and is that age when he still wants to be taken care of and not to take care of others. As with any teenager, he fights this and elects to play his computer, not get up or watch TV to block out these requests for help which I find infuriating and stressful in its self. Sometimes I haven’t the strength for a battle of wills so just let it go. Sometimes my son will surprise me and just get up and do what I need. Its touch and go. But I do feel his dread as I approach my next chemo and then the dread when he sees the change in me – he doesn’t express it, he hides it well but the tension is still there.
I am so glad now that I am going to have my last chemo. With each chemo I have the longer it takes me to recover. I am now at the weekend before my last chemo, blood tests on Monday and I am still very tired and want to sleep during the day. I should be more energetic, raring to go – but I’m not this time. Perhaps I have been overdoing it a bit with Christmas nearly here and not resting enough – and although my reactions over the last three weeks were not as bad as I thought they would be the time I have needed to recover has been longer.Roll on 2013!