It wasn’t easy the first time. When Kimberly Jewett was 31, she found herself listening to a doctor explain what her breast cancer diagnosis meant and what her treatment options were. But at that moment, Kimberly was thinking less about herself and more about her daughter Kalli and her son Tyler, who were 6 and 4 at the time.
“I was in shock,” Kimberly recalled. “All I could think was, ‘How do I tell my children?’”
Answering that question wasn’t any easier the second time around. Four years after Kimberly survived her first battle with breast cancer, the disease came back as metastatic breast cancer that had spread to other parts of her body. Although she knew that three out of four women who are first diagnosed with an early-stage breast cancer eventually progress to metastatic breast cancer, it was still shocking news. Her outlook was significantly less hopeful: while 90 percent of women with breast cancer are alive five years after being diagnosed, only 36 percent of women with metastatic breast cancer survive that long.
Meanwhile, her children were also older. At 8 and 10, they had a better understanding of life and death, making the experience even scarier for them. They began asking difficult questions. When they asked if she was going to die, Kimberly didn’t know what to say.
Kimberly is one of the 266,000 women each year who have to come home from the doctor’s office and tell their families that they have breast cancer. These conversations are never easy. They can be even more difficult when young children are involved, which happens frequently; an estimated 30 percent of all breast cancer in women under the age of 45 is diagnosed within a few years after giving birth.
Now in remission once again, Kimberly is teaming up with her daughter Kalli to share their stories to help other families better navigate the difficult conversation and emotions that come with a breast cancer diagnosis.
Honesty, the Best Policy
The fact that conversations may be difficult doesn’t mean they should be avoided, according to Kimberly. When she was diagnosed, her initial instinct was to protect her children from the news. But she quickly realized that keeping her disease a secret would damage her relationship with them and undermine the trust she wanted in her family.
Her kids would have eventually found out anyway, Kimberly figured, which might have distorted the truth and amplified their fears. So she believed that it was better that they heard the truth from her.
“It was also hard to shield my kids from my diagnosis because I was so emotional all the time,” Kimberly said. “My husband and I decided to tell them once my diagnosis was finalized and we knew my treatment plan.”
Looking back, Kimberly believes that one of the best things she did for her children was to be open and honest with them. By sharing her feelings with her kids, she opened the door for them to share their questions and fears with her.
“They came to me with a ton of questions, like, ‘Are you going to be okay?’ and ‘Am I going to get it?’” Kimberly said.
Sometimes, she admitted to them that she didn’t have all the answers, and that was ok. She told them that she wasn’t sure what would happen and what that meant for their future. But she assured them that whatever happened, they would find the answers together.
We continue to talk about what would happen if my breast cancer came back. All we can do is remain hopeful and continue to pay it forward by inspiring others and sharing our story.
Preparing for Difficult Conversations
Kimberly felt like she had no one to turn to for advice on breaking the news to her children. No friends or family members had gone through similar situations, and she wasn’t involved with any cancer support groups at the time.
So she started searching online for information. She found a comprehensive guide on BreastCancer.org on how to talk to children of all ages and bought children’s storybooks specifically dedicated to breast cancer. These resources were helpful in having those difficult conversations with her children.
Having now had these conversations twice with her kids, other mothers are turning to Kimberly for advice. She highly recommends an app called The Magic Tree for Breast Cancer, developed by Celgene, as a starting place. The app explains the disease in a kid-friendly way so mothers don’t have to navigate the conversation alone, according to Kimberly. It incorporates videos and games that help to answer difficult questions such as, “What is cancer?”, “Did I cause this?”, and “Can you catch it?”
“I remember reading my kids a book about a booboo on a mom’s breast, but the app does this in a video that is much more engaging for them,” Kimberly said.
Kalli—now 16—agrees. “We were so young, we didn’t understand what was truly happening. An app like this would have definitely been helpful for us.”
Kimberly said that because her kids understood what she was going through, they felt like they were part of her support system. They wanted to help her and, in the process, formed a deeper bond with their mother. Kimberly’s battle with breast cancer became a shared experience in their family.
“I wanted to take care of my mom as best as I could,” Kalli said. “She was always sitting in the same chair, tired and exhausted from her treatments. I would ask if she needed anything. I remember bringing her ice cream or whatever she asked.”
Her experience as one of her mother’s caregivers and witnessing cancer’s devastating toll firsthand certainly made a lasting impact on Kalli, who is now considering a career in oncology.
Having those difficult conversations helped to put everything into perspective for the Jewett family. Kimberly found incredible joy in sharing little moments with her children—such as watching Tyler pitch a 60-mph fast ball in a baseball game and taking Kalli to her first high school dance.
While the Jewett family are enjoying their busy lives together, they know that there’s a chance that Kimberly’s breast cancer could come back one day. “We continue to talk about what would happen if my breast cancer came back,” Kimberly said. “All we can do is remain hopeful and continue to pay it forward by inspiring others and sharing our story.”
To help facilitate conversations about breast cancer such as the ones that Kimberly had with her children, Celgene has launched The Magic Tree mobile app with input from patient advocacy groups and clinical experts. The Magic Tree is an educational interactive app with videos and activities designed to help families and their children (ages 5 to 8) to have meaningful and open discussions about a breast cancer diagnosis. The app is available for download in the United States on both Apple and Android devices.