Children are pretty perceptive little things, with in-built radars constantly tuned in to the goings on around them. Even slight deviations away from their usual experience of the world are enough to pique their curiosity.
So it was last year on the day of my cancer diagnosis, that without a word of explanation, each of my children knew ‘something was up’.
It started with the increased flow of visitors, as the supportive force of my family swept into action and rallied around Jay and I as we waited for scary test results.
“Why is everyone here?” asked our eight year-old.
“They want to see us.”
“Yes, but why are they all here and not going home?”
“Well…they’re here to hang out with us.”
From the initial appointment with my GP and subsequent mammogram and ultrasound, to having my breast surgeon give us the final diagnosis, it took four days. These were the longest, most torturous days I have ever experienced. In those four days, we were pitched through a maelstrom of shock and disbelief, feeling terrified, grief-stricken and somehow hopeful that it was all a mere dream. Kids don’t miss stuff like that, no matter how many times you flash them a brave smile.
We felt awful keeping everything a secret, but we had to wait for the final diagnosis before knowing exactly what lay ahead for me. I needed to have CT and Bone scans to determine whether my breast cancer was operable or not. Once cancer has metastasised elsewhere in the body, it is considered inoperable, and so systemic treatment, like chemotherapy takes precedence. If breast cancer is more localised, it will be surgically removed before chemotherapy begins.
As it turned out, while my cancer had invaded many surrounding lymph nodes, it had not spread to distant organs. This was a big relief, but it meant I would need mastectomy surgery immediately and would be in hospital for a week.
Once we were armed with all the information, the next tricky hurdle we faced was telling our kids. We were pretty certain we needed to be upfront and open with them. The last thing we wanted was for them to hear stuff from other children in the schoolyard. Jay and I spent hours upon hours despairing over it, discussing each aspect of it and planning exactly how we would approach it.
- How do we tell our children about cancer in a way that informs but does not frighten?
- How do we convey the gravity of my illness when I do not look sick?
- How do we give answers to questions that not even the experts know?
- And most of all, how do we explain it all without breaking down mid-sentence?
In the end we enlisted the guidance of a child psychologist friend who helped us formulate a plan. We decided to keep our explanations simple and straight forward and then let each child’s questions dictate the rest. We promised to answer all their questions as best as we could, encouraged them to ask as much as they wanted to know, whenever they wished, and assured them that we loved talking to them about it.
Each of them reacted slightly differently, and wanted varying degrees of information about my breast cancer, but all of them wanted confirmation that the important things in their life were going to carry on as normal: things as simple as, ‘Who’s going to take me to school and pick me up?’
Since our initial discussions with our kids, my breast cancer has come up in conversation quite regularly and sometimes at quite inopportune times, like the supermarket, or in front of their teacher and other parents at school pick-up time. While their comments have sometimes made other people around us squirm, they do not faze me in the slightest. I don’t care when or where it happens, I will answer their questions with honesty and clarity.
Here are some of the more memorable things they have come up with over the past couple of months:
- formulating a song about ‘the bump in mum’s boob’
- asking to see and touch my scars
- comparing their bodies to mine
- announcing my diagnosis to people at the supermarket checkout
- pointing out bald people as potential chemo patients when we’re out an about
- checking my hair and asking when it will fall out
- covering me with affectionate, gentle kisses when I come home from hospital
- bringing me snacks and drinks of water after chemo
- declaring a wish that I ‘didn’t have Breast Cancer’
- telling their teacher that ‘mummy doesn’t have ‘breasters’ anymore’
- sewing me a special armpit pillow at school, in free-time
- creating a box of ‘worry men’ out of Lego minifigs that they keep on their bed
- asking if I’ll be sick forever, or have chemotherapy forever
- asking if I’m better yet
On the whole I feel like our children are coping pretty well. We try to maintain a sense of normalcy wherever possible, and prepare them ahead of time if things are going to change. The great thing about children is that they don’t tend to fixate on things for long periods. If fears or worries crop up, we have a chat about them and generally that is enough.
A friend of our family also sent Jay and I a wonderful book titled, ‘My Mum Has Breast Cancer: A Family’s Cancer Journey’, written by a mother, Lisa Sewards and her young son Harrison, as Lisa went through cancer treatment. While I am yet to be able to read it cover to cover without getting teary, it has served as a great source of information aimed at just the right level for young children. If your family is going through a similar experience, or you know a family who is, I highly recommend it.
I get so sad sometimes, thinking that children should be free from big worries and anxieties through childhood, and that our children don’t deserve to have cancer come and wreck that innocence. We are trying so hard to be open with them, but at the same time shield them from the utterly ugly, scary side of my diagnosis. My only hope is that somehow, in some way, they will grow in resilience and strength throughout this journey, and that this whole experience of breast cancer can in fact give a little back to us, rather than just take, take, take.