“Mommy Has Cancer”: How We Struggled to Tell Our Kids
When my beloved sister-in-law fell seriously ill and was hospitalized, my husband and I agreed not to tell our kids anything. Not only were they both unable to visit her (the ICU has strict policies about visitors under 12), but we didn't want to worry them unnecessarily before we knew what her treatment plan looked like. Fortunately, she made a full and speedy recovery.
We didn't have the option to keep quiet
But when I was diagnosed with bladder cancer, we didn't exactly have the option to keep quiet. When I had a doctor's appointment, we had to shuffle our schedules around and arrange for childcare, or sometimes even bring them along if our family wasn't available to babysit. Additionally, we had my surgery to consider: Even though a TURBT is an outpatient procedure, recovery dictated that I would wear a catheter bag for at least a couple weeks while my bladder healed. My kids were young – preschool and kindergarten – but even they would notice a bulging bag of urine sticking out under my sweatpants.
Figuring out how to tell them
So, we had to tell them. But figuring out a way to do it was tricky. We could have simply said “Mommy's sick,” but we didn't want them to associate surgery with a run-of-the-mill sickness like a chest cold. More importantly, we didn't want to pathologize the idea of having a catheter or needing to have surgery. Because my youngest was born with a disability, we've always tried to drill into his head that everybody is different. Every physical body looks and acts different, and it's not so much a “bad” thing as it is another way to live as a human being in this world. Speaking too negatively about my body or my treatment could potentially unravel that.
I didn't want to scare them - but I was terrified
More than anything, though, I wanted to be calm and collected – but that proved to be the most difficult part of all. For the first week after my diagnosis, I couldn't hear the word “cancer” without bursting into tears or feeling so overwhelmed and dizzy I had to lie down. I didn't want to scare them – but I was terrified myself. Terrified of the cancer, of leaving my children motherless, and terrified that I would impart some of my fear onto them while I explained the disease and the course of my treatment.
I decided to just jump right in
Eventually, after hemming and hawing about the best way to do it, I decided to just jump right in. I realized that I was so not a perfect parent, and so as crucial as this conversation was, it was possible that I'd mess it up somehow or give them a phobia even with good intentions. They would forgive me eventually, I figured (and if not, that's what therapists are for).
I was typing a Facebook message and crying when my daughter, then aged five, came up to me. “Why are you crying?” she asked. “What's wrong?”
I blotted my face and tried to compose myself. “Oh,” I said. “Well. I just found out I have this thing called cancer.” I watched her face closely, not sure if she had heard the word before, or if she associated it with death, like I did. Her face didn't change, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“This cancer is in my bladder,” I went on. “It's the organ that holds your pee. I have something that's called a tumor on the outside of my bladder, and the doctors have to go in and get it out of there.”
She realized it was serious
I remember her eyes widening at that point. Cancer she didn't understand, but surgery she was familiar with. And surely, because of my crying face, she realized it meant something serious.
“I'm scared,” I said, deciding to lay it all out there. “I don't like being sick, and I don't want surgery. But the doctor says it's going to make me better, so it's what I'm going to do.” She nodded. She understood.
It seemed to work
My three-year-old got an even more condensed version of the same speech: Mommy has cancer. I'm going to go to the hospital and get surgery to take the cancer out. Then I'll be all better. It seemed to work. Neither kid seemed particularly concerned, or asked if I was going to die. They understood that I needed lots of rest after the procedure, and they gave me lots of cuddles and kisses to help me through it. Eventually, I breathed a sigh of relief. Cancer had totally upended my life – but through the grace of God it didn't upend theirs. It had paralyzed me with fear – but thankfully, they had escaped unscathed. It remains one of my greatest victories in my whole cancer saga – introducing my kids to cancer without scarring them for life.
I had cancer – but we all managed to survive it, in more ways than one.
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