How to help kids cope when Mom has cancer

Jul 25, 2013 at 11:00 a.m. ET

When Margarita Vacanti was 34 years old, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Over the next year and a half, she helped guide her three young children through the scary experience of dealing with a very sick parent.

Margarita Vicanti and family

Bad news is never easy to share with children. When that bad news pertains to Mom’s health, it can be devastating. Margarita Vacanti’s three children were 5 and under when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Find out how she helped her children cope with her illness and treatment.

Margarita’s battle with breast cancer

In 2007, Margarita Vacanti was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was driving her young children home from preschool when her radiation oncologist called and asked her to come in. Margarita pulled over and told the oncologist that she needed to hear the news right away; it was too hard to wait. When he told her that she had cancer, she drove home calmly and put the kids down for their naps. “Then I completely lost it,” she says. Over the next year and a half, Margarita battled breast cancer with chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, radiation and eventually breast reconstruction. She recently reached the milestone of being cancer-free for five years. Learn more about Margarita's treatment at Kaiser Permanente Colorado Medical Center.

Make kids aware of what’s happening

Margarita’s doctors gave her a strong pep talk from the start. She knew she had a hard fight ahead of her. “The treatment is a long process,” she says. “It’s something that the kids have to have enough understanding of to feel comfortable with what’s going on without them.”

Margarita let the kids know that she would be sick, and that their lives would change for a while. She told them she would need very gentle hugs at times. During portions of her treatment, her children were cared for by friends and family. Meals were brought in by the family’s support system. “I didn't promise them anything,” Margarita says. “I didn’t tell them not to worry. I allowed them the space to feel scared.” When her kids expressed fears that she might die, Margarita reminded them that they had lots of adults in their lives who loved them.

Learn how to build family bonds and raise confident children >>

Let kids participate in the change

In a situation that leaves children feeling powerless and afraid, give them opportunities to participate. “I let them know ahead of time that my hair was going to fall out,” Margarita said. One day, while watching her kids at a playground, Margarita felt a large clump of her hair fall out. She called her children over and let them brush their hands through her hair. Together, she and her children let the hair fly away on the breeze. “It was emotionally difficult for me,” she says, “but I tried to make it something that rather than hiding it from them, let them participate in the change, so that they would have a way to be part of it instead of being afraid of it.”

Discover 10 things you think your kids aren't paying attention to... but they are >>

Don’t overburden your children

Margarita cautions against overburdening children or turning to them for support. “There has to be boundaries for the way the parent copes,” she says. “I think you still have to be the parent.” Recalling her mother’s battle with cancer, Margarita was careful to shield her children from the worst aspects of her treatment. “I did not have them come to the hospital after any of the surgeries,” she says. On the other hand, Margarita allowed her children to see her cry and let them know when she felt scared. It gave them a way to connect during her fight. “I never minimized how they felt, and I gave them permission to feel all those difficult emotions,” she says. “You can pretend your children don’t feel them, but they do.” Five years later, her kids remember her being sick, but they’re now hopeful. “They see that I’m fine,” Margarita says, “so they don’t really think about it anymore.”

More on breast cancer

Mom story: I'm a single mom with cancer
Practicing Gratitude: Cousins, breast cancer and mammograms
Breast Cancer Awareness: Heal thyself by paying it forward