I never went to sleep away camp when I was a kid. The opportunity just never arose. Instead, I went camping, backpacking or took road trips with my family.
My kids have the opportunity to go to sleep away camp this summer. This camp is designed for kids with a parent who has (or had) cancer. It’s meant to allow kids to have a great week just being kids, with the opportunity to talk about their experience if they want to, or not talk about it if they don’t. It’s not therapy. They have the chance to make friends who are going through the same kinds of things they are.
My littlest is excited to go. My eldest, not so much. She wants to bring a friend. Since none of her friends have parents with cancer (thank goodness), that’s not really an option. She fully believes this will be a week of therapy, even with multiple assurances that it’s just meant to be fun – no therapy involved. She’ll meet new friends, try new things, laugh a lot and come home asking when she can go back. She still doubts us.
She’s normally resistant to trying new things, even though experience has shown that when she does, she enjoys it. Soccer being a good example. So we weren’t surprised when she replied to our announcement with a firm, “I’M NOT GOING!” So, we dug a little deeper.
With as much as we’ve talked about it and as open as we’ve been to questions, she doesn’t want to talk about my cancer with others. It’s not that it’s embarrassing (like everything else to a 10-year-old), she just doesn’t want to talk about it. I understand this, since it’s not something I want to talk about every moment of every day either. But it brings up a some thoughts about cancer from a child’s perspective. While we’ve been very open with our kids about what’s happening, when there’s nothing happening it becomes easy to ignore it or push it to the back of the closet. How do explain to a child that Mommy is doing well now, but it can all change in a heartbeat? Can you explain that to a 6 and 10-year-old without setting off extreme anxiety? Getting them to a point where they are constantly on edge waiting for something traumatic to happen? Or does that prepare them for the possibility of the trauma? We don’t know what or when, but we’ll likely see some more drama in our lives. How do you explain to children that something MAY happen, but we don’t know what or when?
So, coming back to camp. We asked her who, besides us and her grandparents and neighbors, she has talked to about it. She said no one. We asked if she had anyone who’s gone through something similar. She said no. We asked if she felt she could talk to any of her closest friends if she got worried or anxious or just felt like she needed to talk to someone about it. She said no and mentioned that some people don’t even know and she’d like it to stay that way. I understand where she’s coming from – I don’t want cancer to be everything that I am, with people treating me like I might keel over at any moment, dancing around me as though I might break. She doesn’t want to be seen as ‘that kid who’s mom has brain cancer.’ She just wants to be a kid.
I think the week at camp will be good for both kids, to be able to talk to other kids who’ve experienced similar things with their parents. But is that enough? Should we be taking the kids to family therapy? Should we be helping them to process the possibility of the worst case scenario more? Or should we just keep allowing them to ask questions, sharing information if anything changes, and continue to let them have their childhoods without their mother’s cancer interfering with their days and friendships?