"How I Told My Kids About My Breast Cancer"
"I was scared that they would be scared. I was scared she'd have questions I wouldn’t be able to answer. I was scared. Period."
Ask my 9-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, and she’ll tell you without a second thought: “I want to be an oncologist.” The reason? She wants to help people with breast cancer—people like her mom.
Five years ago, I was a perfectly healthy, 28-year-old stay-at-home mom living in Korea, where my husband was stationed through the military. One day, when I was doing a self-exam on my breasts, my nipple started leaking fluid with blood mixed in. I knew something was wrong. My primary-care doctor referred me to an oncologist, and after an ultrasound revealed two lumps in my left breast, I had a biopsy. That’s when the doctors found that I actually had four lumps, deep inside my breast. All four lumps were cancerous. I'd have to have a mastectomy to remove my left breast.
Before the surgery, we knew we had to talk to our kids about my diagnosis. At the time, my son was not quite 2 years old, and my daughter was 4, so the only one we really needed to have a discussion with was our daughter. Still. I knew she wouldn't understand the full extent of what was going on, but would need an explanation of what was about to happen. I was scared that they would be scared. I was scared she'd have questions I wouldn’t be able to answer. I was scared. Period.
So, after much discussion between my husband and myself over how we would broach the subject, we sat down with my daughter, and I told her simply, “Mommy’s sick. She’s gonna be away for a little while so she can get better.” We told her that her grandmother was going to help her dad take care of her while I was in the hospital, which is where the doctors would make her all better. While she seemed to understand what was happening, she didn't seem upset, which was a relief.
However, that changed as both my children saw me recovering from my surgery for six weeks—a period of time much longer than we had all anticipated, due to complications. They told me they missed me at home. They had gone from being with me all the time to only seeing me for a few hours, if that, every day, at the hospital. My son would say, "Mommy, oww," when he could tell that I was hurting. They were both so sweet and so loving, even when they were so young. Those moments got me through recovery.
After that, we moved back to the States, where an oncologist told me that my cancer was back again, this time in my lymph nodes. With my husband in Oklahoma for school, I had to explain the cancer to my kids—both of them this time—on my own.
I sat them down and told them I was sick again, but assured them that I wouldn't have to have surgery this time. I would live at home with them, but I would have to go to the hospital almost every day to get medicine (chemotherapy) to make me stronger. I was going to lose my hair, I said, and I would feel very weak at times, so they would have to be gentle with me and be good helpers around the house while I was getting better.
My doctors started me on a vigorous routine of chemotherapy, five days per week for a year. The treatments left me exhausted, nauseous, and emotionally drained. I told my kids we were moving, again, to where most of my family lived, so they could help take care them while I was in treatments. I reminded them that they had so many people who loved them, and now they would get to see them even more.
On days when I felt especially sick, my kids would rub my head to try to make me feel better. They would get me water and constantly ask if I was okay. My son, still so young, started to see what I was going through, and he would kiss my forehead and sometimes hold me at night. My daughter would always tell me, "It will be okay, mommy." And when I lost my hair, she would hug me and tell me I was beautiful.
I never expected that hair loss would be one of the hardest parts of having cancer, but it’s not easy to feel like a woman when you’ve lost one of your breasts and all of your hair. Maybe my daughter could sense that, and she was always there to remind me that I was the same me as before.
As my kids got older, and grew up watching me in and out of surgeries and treatments, they started to have more questions about cancer. My daughter, now 9, often ask things like “How does someone get cancer?” and “Why do you have cancer?” I tell her the truth: I really don’t know, especially since no one in my family has had breast cancer. I asked her recently if she remembers when I told her I had cancer the first two times. She started to cry, and said, “I didn’t want my mommy to die.” (I was shocked that my diagnosis had affected her so much, even when she was so young. At the time, I simply hadn't realized it.)
Every time I go in for a PET scan or a mammogram, the first thing they ask me when I get home is, “Do you have cancer again?” When the results are negative, they celebrate. They’ll jump up and down and chant, “Mommy doesn’t have cancer!” That’s the best part of getting a clean scan.
Unfortunately, six months after celebrating that I was cancer-free, my breast cancer came back for a third time. That meant more surgery to remove the 25 cancerous lymph nodes and radiation five days per week for six weeks following that. It's never fun when they ask me, "Do you have cancer again?" and I have to say, "Yes." They cry, I cry, but every time, we make it through it together.
Now, I'm taking oral chemotherapy until I'm out of the woods, and my doctors are watching my cancer closely. No matter what happens, though, I know my little support system will be there, rubbing my head (although my hair has thankfully all grown back) and cheering louder for every negative result. They’re what gets me through my hardest days.
It’s not easy to let your kids in on a struggle as confusing, uncertain, and painful as cancer. But for me, it has been an important part of the road to what I hope will soon be remission.
This article was written by Linda Crider as told to Carly Breit from Women's Health and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].
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