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When my son was 7 and my daughter was 3, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. My husband and I knew from the beginning that we would not try to hide cancer from our children. I wanted them to know that even though I was about to start taking medicine that would make me sick so that I could get better, I would be there for them. Things would be different for awhile.
Mommy would spend more time in bed, friend’s would bring them to school and daycare. Grandmom would be cooking dinner and making breakfast. But Mommy would be there. For 18 months, they watched me go through chemotherapy, radiation, bi-lateral mastectomies and multiple reconstruction procedures. These two kids watched me go through surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation. They watched people come and go, bringing flowers and gifts. They watched Daddy shave my head while I cried. They overheard snippets of conversations with words like scans, prognosis, oncologist, mastectomy, recurrence.
I did my best to give them just enough information so they could understood all this was necessary and that I would get better. I always wondered how their experience watching Mom go through cancer would effect them down the road. Was I right to not hide information from them? Should I have sheltered them from the whole thing?
My daughter used to visit me in bed. She'd lie with me and we would talk. She'd ask me when I could play with her. I didn’t have an answer so I asked her to help me make a list of all the things we would do when I got better. Together, we created a list that included swimming, playing at the park, dancing and hiking.
As I finished treatment and got my strength back, we did everything on that list as a family. Every time we did something from the list, I would say to my kids, “See I promised you I would get better and do this with you and here we are!” This was my way of letting them know that I fulfilled my promise to them, I got better. I would continue to be there for them.
I’ve been a survivor for five years now. In that time, my children have watched my hair grew back, they've seen me do a couple of triathlons, and they know I created MovingOn, a rehabilitative exercise program for breast cancer survivors. My children have watched me give speeches to large audiences and be interviewed for television. They were there when I did the two-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer (three times). They watched me create a company dedicated to supporting cancer survivors. They are watching me MoveOn from cancer. So they're done with the ugly side of cancer right?
We were done with cancer until my now 10-year-old daughter came to me fresh out of the shower with a look of terror on her face. I asked her what was wrong.
She said, “I found a lump on my breast, do I have breast cancer?”
In two seconds, I went from fear to revulsion to anger. This was absolutely not going to happen to my kid.
I calmly asked her if I could touch the lump.
She let me, and it was huge.
I told her we would simply go to our family doctor and have it checked out. Although I was calm and collected in front of my daughter, I lost it when she left the room. I knew in my heart it wasn’t cancer, and, thank God, it wasn’t. Our family doctor (and my breast surgeon) confirmed it was a breast bud, a normal part of growing up for a girl her age.
It saddens me that because she was witness to breast cancer, instead of being excited at the thought of entering into womanhood, we have to first quell her cancer fears. Even though I am saddened that this concern will always be a part of our lives, I’m also proud of my children.
We’ve been through the worst of the worst together. They've seen me at my lowest (both physically and mentally) and they were there through every step of my rehabilitation. They know what I am made of. They know what I’m capable of. When we have a concern, we voice it and we support each other to get it taken care of. No drama, just face it and get what we need to get it done. Then make the best of it and get on with life.
Perhaps I don’t have to worry about cancer affected my children after all.