When she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2006, Margaret Zuccotti had just given birth a month prior and was also caring for her other two children who were aged three and six at the time. With the stress of caring for her children and researching her treatment options at the same time, much of that time in her life remains a blur. But she does recall trying hard not to tell her kids about her breast cancer diagnosis until after the treatment plan was determined.
“If I had a chance to do it again, I’m not sure I would have done it that way,” Zuccotti said. “All children, even little ones like my three-year-old, pick up on stress and emotional changes in the family. They know something is going on. I think it’s important for a mother to share her breast cancer diagnosis with her kids.”
Being diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer while parenting young children is becoming more common; the number of women aged 25 to 39 diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer has increased 2.1 percent each year on average between 1976 and 2009. Zuccotti reflects on how she approached the difficult discussion with her children about her breast cancer diagnosis, so that other mothers can learn from her experience.
BREAST CANCER SURVIVOR MARGARET ZUCCOTTI BELIEVES THAT IT’S IMPORTANT FOR MOTHERS WHO ARE DIAGNOSED WITH BREAST CANCER TO LET THEIR KIDS KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING THROUGHOUT THE JOURNEY.
Finding the Right Words
When her treatment plan was confirmed, Zuccotti decided to tell her kids that she was sick and would have to take a lot of medicine to get better. She wanted to make sure that they knew to come to her and her husband for information and with any questions. That way they could address their concerns and find the answers to their questions together.
As a former school teacher, Zuccotti understood that books could help her children with this stressful situation and feel more at ease with any feelings of anger and sadness. Furthermore, she wanted to create a safe environment for them to share their concerns by holding them in her lap while reading together.
She found several cancer-related books. One book with a picture of a woman sitting in an infusion chair with an intravenous line helped her explain to her children what her treatment would look like.
Above all else, Zuccotti believed it was crucial to reassure her children that she loved them very much and that they were going to be okay. “It was important for me to say that ‘Mommy has cancer, but you’re not going to catch it,’” she said. “If kids know others who have died or suffered from cancer, you can tell them that everyone’s disease is different and explain more about yours.”
I think it’s important for a mother to share her breast cancer diagnosis with her kids.
An Ongoing Story
When Zuccotti told her six-year-old about her breast cancer, he said, “I understand. I don’t feel great today either,” and hopped off his bed and began to play again.
“Kids most likely won’t get it the first time around,” Zuccotti said. “It can’t be a one-and-done conversation. It’s essential you talk about what’s going on throughout the process and prepare them for anything that might change, especially things that may change regarding physical appearance.”
She told her kids her hair would begin to fall out because of the medicine and that she would shave her head when they were at school. Her three-year-old asked if she could touch her bald head, but her six-year-old just wanted her to put her scarf back on.
Before her mastectomy, Zuccotti warned her kids that she wouldn’t be able to hug them for two weeks. Together, they created a new ritual to share their love: the pinkie hug.
While she kept the conversation going throughout her treatment, Zuccotti didn’t share everything. She tried to focus on what she thought was appropriate based on their ages.
AS HER KIDS HAVE GROWN, THEY BETTER UNDERSTAND WHAT THEIR MOTHER HAS GONE THROUGH. THEY JOIN HER IN VOLUNTEER WORK WITH LIVING BEYOND BREAST CANCER, PARTICIPATING IN EVENTS SUCH AS THE ANNUAL YOGA FUNDRAISER.
Tell the Other Adults in the Room
Beyond sitting down and explaining her breast cancer diagnosis with her children, Zuccotti also told a few teachers and counselors at her children’s school and summer camp. She told her children whom she spoke to and encouraged them to reach out to those adults if they needed to talk with someone about what was going on at home.
“You don’t have to tell everything to people, but you may want to let the school know,” Zuccotti said. “If your wonderful child turns into the most disruptive one in the class, it’s pretty easy to figure out why.”
When sharing details with other adults, she made sure to tell them what her kids did and didn’t know, so they never inadvertently brought up something she might not have been ready to discuss.
As her kids have grown, they better understand what their mother has gone through. They join her in volunteer work with Living Beyond Breast Cancer, participating in events such as the organization’s annual yoga fundraiser. “The yoga on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art event has been a cool way to fold my kids into what’s going on,” Zuccotti said.
They have also become pillars of support for their friends when a family member has been diagnosed with cancer. Her oldest child, now 17, has provided comfort to three classmates during the difficult times when their mothers were diagnosed with breast cancer. “It made him feel helpful,” she said. “They really helped keep me going when I was being treated, and it’s nice to see them do the same for others as well.”
To help facilitate conversations about living with breast cancer such as the ones that Zuccotti 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.