Telling my children I had cancer has to be one of the most difficult conversations I have ever had. It is one that I tried to prepare for as best I could, but finding the perfect time, setting and words proved to be a challenge.
I was diagnosed in August of 2007 right before our annual beach vacation. The children were four and seven. My husband and I both agreed that we should wait to tell them anything about my diagnosis. I hadn't chosen a course of treatment and we weren't sure what the extent of my cancer really was. We felt like we needed to spare the little ones any undue pain until we knew the facts. We went on our vacation and tried to pretend like things were normal. Upon returning home, we scheduled my surgery for October.
I made a few phone calls to people I knew with a background in child psychiatry. My friend explained that I should let the children be my guide. "Don't overload them," she said, " Their little brains can only process so much at a time."
So when it came time for my surgery, we told them that I was having surgery on my arm. It was a half truth; I did have lymph nodes removed. They seemed to do pretty well with all of the changes that were going on and they certainly realized that mommy was sick.
I asked my husband, a trained psychiatrist, when he thought that we should tell the children I had cancer. "Never," he responded. I started to laugh hysterically. "You are joking, right?" I asked incredulously. "No I am not. The children don't ever need to know." I could appreciate his concern for their mental health on the one hand, but the reality was that my hair was going to fall out soon and I would have some explaining to do. "How am I going to explain my hair loss?" I pursued. " You can just wear your wig all of the time, they will never know." He said with a finality that signaled the end of the conversation.
Now my husband is a very intelligent man, so you can imagine that this came as a great shock to me. Then it dawned on me. He was still in denial. This wasn't happening to us, it was not real.
I went along with this plan for a while, not wanting to upset the apple cart, and tried to convince him that we needed to tell them something before I lost my hair. I was afraid that one of the children at school might mention my cancer to them. People knew about my illness and had probably told their children. I wanted them to hear it from me first.
Fortunately, Luke found my wigs I had been hiding in a closet and forced our hand. "Mom, you have been lying to me about something." he said in a sad voice. "I found some wigs. Why do you have them?" I proceeded to tell him that mommy was going to have to take some very strong medicine and it was going to make my hair fall out. I thought that this would mollify his curiosity. "Why do you have to take the medicine, mom?" He pressed on. "Well, Luke, mommy had cancer but it is all gone and the medicine is to make sure it doesn't come back." There, I said it. I watched and waited for his reaction. "Okay mom. Is it like Uncle Jim's cancer, where he is all better?" I breathed a sigh of relief. " Yes, sweetie, it is just like Uncle Jim's cancer. I am going to be just fine." I said, choosing to believe this to be true.