What Do You Say?

My husband and I have always subscribed to the philosophy of being as open and honest with our kids as is appropriate to their ages. We’ve also always encouraged them to ask questions. Problem with that is they always do.

In her first post, Justenjoyhim said she would only be giving us her story bit by bit. To give it all at once is overwhelming. That’s how we told the kids. Bit by bit.

We told Taylor and Katie I had a lump in my breast and my doctor wanted me to have a mammogram just to make sure it wasn’t anything bad. We told them I’d had both lumps and mammograms before and they were never anything to worry about. Of course we had to explain what a mammogram was. Taylor looked at me and finally asked, “Will they pop back into their normal shape after they’ve been squished like a pancake?”

When they got home from school the Wednesday of my tests we sat them down again and told them I’d be having surgery the following Tuesday. Because I didn’t have a definitive diagnosis – only a 95% probability of a malignancy – I don’t believe we used the word cancer. We simply told them the doctor didn’t like the look of things so she wanted to take it out just to be safe. Both Todd and I just sort of acted like it was no big deal. We figured there was no sense in worrying the kids until there was something to worry them about. Besides, Taylor’s 13th birthday was Saturday and we didn’t want to cast a pall over the celebration. I mean, come on. Becoming a teenager is a big thing!

On Tuesday I went in for my surgery, fairly certain I’d be coming home without a breast. We’d kept things as normal as possible and the kids went to school that morning knowing I wouldn’t be home until the next day, but more concerned about tests and end-of-the-year activities. My in-laws stayed at the house with the kids and continued to keep things ordinary.

Todd had me settled and comfy in the bed when they got home from school the next day. He ushered the kids into our room so we could fill them in. I didn’t say a whole lot, but Todd told them the lump had been cancer, however, the doctor felt certain she’d gotten all of it (even what had spread to the nodes, though he didn’t mention this). We told them about chemotherapy and how it may make me feel bad and lose my hair. We told them the doctor removed my entire breast to be sure she got it all. By this point things were rather somber so Todd told them I had a new nickname. Cyclops. This lightened the mood and we all got a good chuckle out of that, though I was more often referred to as Uniboob.

As I said in my initial post, both Taylor and Katie were old enough to know what cancer was. To them cancer was something that people died from. But when we shared the facts with them head on and they saw how calm we were, there was no freaking out. That’s not to say they didn’t ever have any bad moments – just like Todd and me – but I feel that they handled the entire experience very well.

I don’t know if we did everything the way we were supposed to.  I’m nearly certain that we handled some things with inappropriate humor.  But it seemed to work for us and I think I’ve got two pretty well adjusted kids despite a rotten year and various related obstacles since then.


8 Responses to What Do You Say?

  1. tori says:

    I feel exactly the same way about the way I told my kids. It may not have been textbook perfect, but it definitely worked for us. My kids seem pretty secure now and yours seem great too. Hopefully we will both live a long healthy life and our kids will never have to hear the word cancer pertaining to us ever again.

  2. imstell says:

    I absolutely believe that no one knows what a kid can handle better than a parent. We told B the hard stuff. But we seasoned it with plenty of humor also… just like we do the rest of our lives. I suffered through more than my share of Kojak jokes and kinderkids asking to rub my head with good humor.

    But we also sent him to a counselor as soon as he started showing signs of abnormal anger. I do believe in knowledge… but I also believe in preventative medicine. 😉

  3. bcjenster says:

    Tori – I know you feel the same. :o)

    Imstell – I agree. We talked to all their teachers at the very beginning. We told them what was going on and asked that they let us know if they showed any abnormal behavior.

  4. sprucehillfarm says:

    We told our kids in small bits and pieces too. I found it easier for them to digest. I think it really helped. I encouraged them to ask lots of questions too and kept an open dialogue with them about the whole thing. It seemed to work out well.
    The other day at my daughters school her teacher commented to me how well she thought my 6 yearold was doing with everything. She said she did not notice anything different about her and that whatever I was doing I was doing right. That really made me happy. We really try to keep everything as normal as possible and talk about everything and do lots of joking around too.

  5. justenjoyhim says:

    We had already been going to a family therapist (behavioral issues with Nate from the previous spring) so once I knew it was cancer I put a call into her. She was a huge help. When I waited for her to call back, I was on the internet American Cancer Society webpage also. What she said echoed what they said, and there are different ways to tell kids depending on their ages. Nate is 6.

    She stressed to tell him what body part was affected and to use the word “cancer,” to explain it that “there’s something in there that shouldn’t be there and the doctors will work very hard to give me medicine that will get it out of there. She said that if he asked if I would die from it to not make any promises; that no parent can actually promise to be around all the time, not knowing what the future holds. Since children, particularly at Nate’s age, are so very literal, promising him that I would always be around since I couldn’t keep that promise could be very damaging in the future if I were to die. She suggested just saying that the doctors would do everything they could to help me.

    We talked about it more in family therapy sessions and that’s when the real talking took place. Our family therapist, who I call on my blog Dr. Smart Cookie, has been a real godsend. We’re always honest with Nate, in an age appropriate way, about the cancer, and I always follow Dr. SC’s lead.

  6. Jenster, I love that you and these other ladies are bravely reliving this so that you can continue the journey of healing and help others to heal. I cringed a bit when I typed “bravely” because I realize we do what we have to when we have to, and by the grace of God and a little help from our friends, we get by. But, I do think it’s brave–you could’ve chosen to go into denial, to overdramatize, to underprepare yourselves and your kids, and you didn’t. You faced this head on, didn’t make it into more than it was, but at the same time took it seriously and worked with the hand dealt you. I can’t imagine doing anything better–certainly, our family falls into gallows humor when things are tight. 🙂 My grandma’s favorite saying is, “You just as well laugh as cry.”


  7. laurie says:

    Well, I just finished writing a post for another site (I will link to it once it goes live)on exactly this subject. I really wish I had known all of you when it was time to tell my kids.
    Big hugs, L.

  8. […] feeling my way: talking to my kids about my cancer Last week, Jenster wrote a post about talking to her kids about her cancer. […]

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