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Parenting With Cancer: Out in the Open

Parents with cancer face special challenges. New points of connection can help you be there for your kids. Story by Jen A. Miller & photos by Doug Sanford

When Jen Singer was diagnosed with aggressive stage III B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2007, she wasn’t just concerned about dying. She was worried about how her diagnosis would affect her sons, then ages 8 and 10. How would she tell them she had cancer? How much should she tell them about her treatments? How would it affect their routines? Could she still help them with homework? Take them to swim practice while nauseous from chemo? How would she comfort them when she was terrified herself? What if they acted like nothing was wrong? What would she do if they asked if she might die when she didn’t know the answer herself? ​

7 Points of Light for Parents
Helpful resources for moms and dads.

Age Matters​
Age-specific guidelines for talking
to your child about cancer. ​
“I went online and Googled ‘parenting with cancer’ and got very little,” says Singer, now 45. Almost all of​  ​​the results were targeted at parents whose child had cancer, not parents who had cancer.  ​

As someone whose career had revolved largely around parenting advice—Singer created the website and is the author of the Stop Second-Guessing Yourself parenting book series—the mom of two from Kinnelon, N.J., was floored to find nearly zero online resources for parents like herself. “I felt like there needed to be one place where any parent who was diagnosed with cancer could go and find everything they needed in one online spot,” she says.

Today, Singer is in remission. She takes her kids to sports practices. She coaches one son’s soccer  team. She writes about potty training and how to handle toddler tantrums. She helps her sons cope with the still lingering emotional fallout of almost losing their mother. And she’s helping other parents with cancer too. ​​​​​​​

Parents Speak Up! 
In 2011, Singer launched the website, the resource she wished she’d had when she first searched online right after her diagnosis. It serves as a public forum for something people didn’t talk about candidly before. Singer’s website takes parenting with cancer to a new level, one where parents can gain the tools to speak openly to their children about cancer and reach out to others for help, or just share experiences with other parents who’ve been there.

“If you’re a new mom and you’re breastfeeding, you would seek out breastfeeding moms,” says Melissa​ M. Thompson, an oncology social worker in Batavia, Ill., who runs a private counseling center and works with patients at the Cancer Center at Kishwaukee Community Hospital in DeKalb, Ill. “The power of Jen Singer’s blog is that it builds a social network.”
As many cancer survivors know, it wasn’t always this way.

A few decades ago, cancer was not something to be talked about, especially with one’s children. Bette​r treatments and better prognoses for many types of cancer have changed that attitude—for the most part—as have newer parenting styles.
“There was a lot of shame and secrecy around cancer 30 years ago,” says Thompson. “Cancer used to be shameful, similar to AIDS. We couldn’t cure it, so we knew the person would likely die.”
In the 1990s, Wendy S. Harpham, an internal medicine physician in Dallas, found herself in shoes very similar to Singer’s. In 1990, at age 36, she was diagnosed with a type of indolent non-Hodgkin lymphoma—a slow-growing cancer that has no known cure. She struggled to find guidance that might help her navigate her new role as a cancer patient with three young children, then 2, 4 and 6.
Today, Singer takes her kids to sports practices. She helps her sons cope with the emotional fallout of almost losing their mother. And she’s helping other parents with cancer.​
“There were a couple of small—I call them tidy—children’s books where the mom gets diagnosed, mom’s bald, mom gets better, everybody’s happy,” says Harpham. “That was not my experience. Treatment was long and difficult. Recovery was not easy, and we didn’t have that happy ending because my cancer kept coming back.”
Harpham, who is now in remission, eventually stopped practicing internal medicine after her second recurrence. Instead, she made educating people about parenting with cancer her priority. In 1997, she published When a Parent Has Cancer: A guide to caring for your children, which she updated in 2004, and she now writes and speaks about how to parent successfully with cancer.

Although cancer is no longer the secrecy-inducing diagnosis it once was, Harpham says she still routinely encounters patients who are trying to keep their cancer a secret from their families. Singer—who has done more than most parents to bring the topic out in the open—has seen the same thing: Parents who are currently in treatment or who have even completed treatment but have not yet told their children about their diagnosis. 



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