Helping Children Understand a Breast Cancer Diagnosis: Emily Sippola
If you are a parent, one of your biggest concerns after being diagnosed with breast cancer may be how to talk to your child or children about your diagnosis, treatment and the changes that may lie ahead. During LBBC's Twitter Chat, Talking to Your Kids About Breast Cancer, on May 17, our panel of experts and parents who have been diagnosed with breast cancer will share their parenting challenges and successes, communication tips and other resources to help you.
Here, read Emily Sippola's story of talking to her children about her breast cancer diagnosis:
It was the day before Halloween in 2014. Emily Sippola, a business consultant, was working more than 4 hours away from her Ann Arbor, Michigan home, when her phone rang. A nurse practitioner on the other end said a biopsy showed Emily had breast cancer. She was scheduled to see an oncologist in a few days.
One thing Emily, who was 35, already knew: Her mother had been diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at age 49 and had lived less than 4 years afterwards.
On the way home, as a co-worker drove, Emily kept up a stream of texts with her then-wife and several friends. She also worried about how the disruption of her diagnosis and treatment would affect the couple’s children, a 6-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl. She wanted the children to understand what was going on and feel safe.
“My kids are really thoughtful creatures,” says Emily. “I knew that what was going to be scarier for them was not having information rather than having information.”
But what should they be told — and when?
Talk Provides Reassurance
The next day, Emily went into full Mom mode, attending Halloween parties in both her children’s classrooms, although she and her wife were anxious about the oncology appointment.
“We were in a panic state and trying not to be in a panic state with the kids,” Emily recalls.
Her wife, from whom she is now divorced, wanted to delay telling the children about Emily’s diagnosis.
“I really wanted us to talk about it with them as soon as we had enough information to have a plan. I felt like they needed to know,” says Emily.
The children were told the biopsy was done because the doctors wanted to look at some tissue. After the oncologist visit, Emily explained her early-stage diagnosis by saying the doctors took out some “bumps in my breast” to see what was inside “and they found cancer cells.”
She asked them if they knew what cancer was. Her daughter, who was in third grade, said that cancer happens if cells don’t stop growing when they are supposed to and that sometimes they go other places. Emily laughs remembering telling her brother that story. His response, she says was “That’s basically what I know about cancer!”
The two women told their children about what would come next, including bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction with implants, which Emily described as “a little like water balloons.”
She also explained that her diagnosis wasn’t a secret and the children could talk about it with others if they wanted to. She helped them think through what they might tell their friends. Emily also told other parents and teachers about the situation.
Despite the difficult topic, the conversations with the children went well. “I knew that we could frame it in a way that was going to give them reassurance and confidence that somebody was going to take care of them and that everything was going to be OK,” Emily says. “I think there’s a way to explain almost anything to a child in a way they can understand.”
That ability would be needed again as Emily’s daughter, who is her biological child, began to worry about her own risk of developing breast cancer.
Emily told her that doctors would start screening her when she was 25. That follows the recommendation that young women with a close family history have a mammogram 10 years before the earliest age of family diagnosis. And, she added, “We might have more information about what’s causing my cancer by the time you get bigger.”
Soon after Emily’s bilateral mastectomy, her father was diagnosed with lung cancer and came to live with them during his treatment. He died suddenly. That trauma was followed by the break-up of the marriage. Then Emily lost her job.
“It was 15 months of agonizing [over] all the worst things that people talk about, all of the major life stressors,” she says.
Now working freelance, Emily has time flexibility for co-parenting the children. She’s on tamoxifen, with only mild side effects. Life is moving forward. “I’m orphaned, divorced and I’ve already had cancer. It’s going to be OK,” she says. “Things right now are looking pretty good and pretty stable.”
These days, the children usually don’t think about her diagnosis. But when the subject comes up, Emily reminds them she still sees doctors to make sure she’s healthy. “The kids view cancer as something I had in the past and ‘recovered from,’ in my daughter’s words,” she says.
This article was supported by the Grant or Cooperative Agreement Number 1 U58 DP005403, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.