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How Do You Tell a Little One?

“How do I tell my five year old”, I wondered. There must be books, surely? Books written by psychologists on the best way to tell a small child that their parent has cancer; a way which won’t terrify them that their world might fall apart or confuse them with too much information. There are books on every other aspect of a child’s life, there must be books on this, right? Just as background, this was coming from the woman who spent her pregnancy reading books about being pregnant so that she knew everything about pregnancy and then when her contractions started, realized in panic that she knew nothing about taking care of a baby! She had never held one, never changed a diaper, never burped a baby. So what did she do? Dragged her husband to the bookstore and waddled to the checkout carrying a stack of books on taking care of babies in an attempt to cram before the exam…….uh, delivery! The checkout clerk gave her (me) an indulgent smile and asked “when is the baby due?” My proud husband blithely replied “oh, any moment now, her contractions are five minutes apart”, at which the previously smiling women looked horrified and said “you have to take her to the hospital, you have to get her out of here NOW!” The first time I had ever been kicked out of a bookstore! So, back to the current question, “How do I tell my five year old?”. Well, books seemed like a good idea! At my next oncologists appointment I checked the resource room where they had a whole library of books on cancer. Not a single book on telling children that you have been diagnosed with cancer. I even asked the breast cancer coordinator and she agreed that yes, there really should be some books but that they didn’t have any.  Her advice was that she thought I should keep it simple! So my explanation to five year old Quincy went something like this: “Quin, Mama went to the doctor’s today and they found that I have a lump in my right breast; they call the lump “cancer”. The cancer lump could make Mama sick if they leave it there, so they are going to do an operation and take it out so that Mama doesn’t get sick (pause, Quincy looked at me curiously). They are also going to give Mama some medicine to make sure that all the cancer is gone. And guess what? The medicine is REALLY crazy medicine because it helps get rid of all the cancer lump, but it also makes Mama’s hair fall out. But don’t worry, the hair will grow back. Crazy medicine, huh?” Of course, I said this with a big, bright smile to convey the impression that this was just the funniest, wackiest thing imaginable. Funny, huh? Quincy looked at me dubiously. No doubt she was thinking “Is she serious? Sounds lousy to me” but she didn’t say anything, didn’t have any questions, just kept on looking at me, so I ran out of steam on the subject and we started talking about other things.

Postscript March 2009: She never did ask me questions about the cancer and throughout my surgeries, months of chemotherapy and the promised hair-loss and then daily radiation treatments and even more surgery she seemed profoundly unconcerned. In fact she was her same joyful, funny and adorable self who brightened every one of my days. In truth I wasn’t really sure that she knew what was going on, but adhered to the “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” and “let sleeping dogs lie” maxims. However recently, a year after my diagnosis, we were eating Chinese food, one of her favorites. At the end we opened our fortune cookies and read their messages.  I opened mine and read “tomorrow you will be the center of attention”. Quincy immediately said, “Mama, I think that is mine because I want to be person of the day at school tomorrow”. Person of the day gets to wear a paper crown and switch off the classroom lights when everyone leaves the classroom. A major privilege! When I opened hers it read “you will live a long and happy life”. There are some moments in life that seem more solid, where time goes slower, the seconds stretch out and you are somehow more present. This was one of those moments. I felt Quincy watching me, although I was looking down at the paper. I knew at that moment that she had something important to say and was deciding whether it was Ok to say it or not. When I looked up she said “Mama, I think that one is yours”. “Why?”, I asked. She looked me in the eyes and replied simply “because you had cancer”. At that moment I knew that she had known what had been going on and had not been afraid, that she had been protected from fear. This is the same child who often wanted me to sleep with her at night because she was afraid of who knows what, spiders! What an amazing gift from God!

1 Comment

  1. John Moser

    Thank you for sharing your story – this will help other moms talk to their kids with more clarity and confidence. And…you should write a book to give this resource to others!
    John Moser

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