- Fear of death of their parent
- Fear because their parents have fear
- Fear of separation
- Fear cancer is contagious and that they will catch it
- Fear that they caused the cancer
- Fear that the life they know will change
Because our society frequently hides the diagnosis of cancer, often a child's or teents only exposure to cancer is people who have died. Therefore cancer means death. This may be the first time that the possibility of death of someone close has ever become a consideration. They may sense your fear of death. A younger child may think death is near at hand, an older child may interpret therapies as only postponing death.
Children of all age groups can sense a parent's anxiety and fear. In turn they can then become more afraid and insecure. Smaller children may cling to you and want more than usual attention.
When small children realize that their mother may be hospitalized, they have fear that they will be separated from you. They have little sense of time and they live in the "now." A few days may be interpreted as permanent. They may also experience separation frequently when you have radiation treatments or chemotherapy as these take up a significant fraction of their day.
Many children think cancer is contagious, that they can catch it from you. After all, most of the colds and illnesses that they have had they did get from someone else. It is very important to assure children of all ages that cancer of all kinds is not contagious, that they can't catch it. Assure them that breast cancer doesn't happen to children. Their friends may also think cancer is contagious and may stop playing with your child because of the fear of catching it or spreading it to their mother.
Magical thinking is normal in children, and is extremely common in preschool and grade school children. Magical thinking is the idea that they can make their thoughts and wishes come true. Last week they may have been mad at you and thought, "I'm mad at Mommy. I want to hurt her." Now you have cancer and you hurt, more than they ever thought possible. They fear they caused the cancer and the impact of their wishes is now beyond their control. They feel very guilty and afraid. Even older children or teenagers often think they had something to do with you getting cancer.
Children derive a great deal of security in knowing what to expect day by day and in the future. Suddenly their life is upset, and they don't know what to expect today or from now on. Their family security is at risk of disappearing.