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How To Tell Young Kids You Have Breast Cancer

How To Tell Young Kids You Have Breast Cancer
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Published on September 29, 2020

Breast Cancer Survivor Writes Children’s Book to Help Others

IMG 0078One morning in November 2014, just after her 40th birthday, Beckie Gladfelter felt a lump in her breast. She scheduled an appointment with her doctor and was concerned, but not alarmed; she had no family history of breast cancer and hadn’t even had her first mammogram yet.

However, a mammogram, ultrasound, and biopsy confirmed that Beckie would become one of the one in eight women in the United States to be diagnosed with breast cancer that year.1

She was shocked. Her mind filled with so many thoughts. How should she tell her family? How serious is this cancer? Would it take her life?

Beckie’s kids were in second grade, kindergarten, and preschool at the time. How should she tell the kids?

Cancer at Christmas

While awaiting a full treatment plan, Beckie said she “tried to keep busy and keep my mind off of it.”

The holiday season was in full swing, and on Christmas Eve, Beckie received good news; her breast cancer was treatable and her prognosis was good. She readied herself for the next body-altering, life-changing steps; a double bilateral mastectomy, axillary node dissection, and breast reconstruction, followed by chemotherapy, and finally radiation. Once she had a treatment plan in place, she was ready to share the news.

“We told the boys in January. It was a snow day and we were at home playing UNO,” she said.

She told them directly.

“So, I have to tell you something...I have breast cancer,” Beckie said.

The boys were young, so when they responded with the question, “What is a breast?” she had to laugh. Many families have different words for body parts, and she explained that her “puffy pillows” were sick and she would need surgery. That was the first of many conversations with her family during her cancer journey.

IMG 5423What is Breast Cancer Treatment?

Beckie’s husband Mark was instrumental in explaining the plans too. He told the boys that they needed to be gentle around Beckie after surgery. For her littlest one, Luke, who was only three years old, it was hard to understand that Beckie couldn’t pick him up and swing him around. Then their minds turned to practical matters. 

“Can you pick up a jug of milk?” one of the boys asked.

“What about UNO? Can you still play?”

For Beckie, this was a relief. They were already figuring out how to get back to their normal family activities.

Looking for Breast Cancer Resources

Beckie was overwhelmed. As an educator for Maryland’s public school system, she knew where to find resources for most topics, but books about talking to kids about breast cancer were hard to find.

This led Beckie to write her own book.

Typing away on her iPhone kept her busy while enduring many hours of treatments and provided a way to get her thoughts out of her head and onto paper. Her book, “My Warrior Mommy: Our Cancer Journey” was created out of not only her need to process what was happening, but with the intention to help other families in the future.2

The book helps families:

  • Begin the difficult conversation with their kids
  • Review and celebrate the completion of each treatment
  • Read sections as a new stage of treatment begins

Demystifying Chemotherapy

One of the things that helped Beckie and her family was having an ongoing discussion and stopping to clarify anything the boys didn’t understand.

Her oldest son Jack thought that chemotherapy was administered by an oral medicine dropper, like the ones he was used to seeing at home. So, one infusion day, the family took a field trip together so the boys could see how the chemotherapy was given through her port.

Being open and honest about the process and the procedures helped the boys to be less fearful of the unknown.

Beckie is known for her beautiful, long curly hair. Losing that part of her appearance seemed daunting but the men in her life were unphased. Mark suggested she pick out a wig before she needed it. And when the day came for Mark to shave her head, she was ready. The boys didn’t seem to care if she wore the wig or not, they just wanted their mom to feel better. And today, she does!

IMG 5816Blessings of the Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19

Beckie is a cancer survivor. Her long, curly hair has grown back. Her maintenance medications keep her cancer at bay. Regular check-ins with her oncologist help keep her health on track. And she runs and does weight training to keep her bones strong.

These days, the busy mom has been forced to slow down due to the COVID-19 pandemic but she’s found the bright side of this experience. When you’re a working mom of three boys who all play sports, you’re always on the go. Beckie has actually been enjoying this time at home with them during the pandemic.

“I’m able to see how their day is going and I have more time to exercise,” she said.

To all people going through a cancer journey Beckie’s advice is to “balance your energy.” That means resting when you feel tired and not pushing yourself too hard.

Beckie worried that the boys would be scarred from this experience but they’re anything but. In fact, when she asked them recently if they remembered the day when they were playing cards around the kitchen table and she told them she had cancer, they all said “no.” What a relief!

Beckie continues to be a champion for young women with breast cancer and shares her story with people who need encouragement at speaking engagements in the Washington, DC, area.

- Lauren Evoy Davis

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  1. Breast Cancer Statistics. American Cancer Society
  2. Gladfelter, B. My Warrior Mommy: Our Breast Cancer Journey.

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