Concerns of How My Cancer Will Affect My Children

Beth Brophy Health Guide
  • It took me a few days to figure out what was bothering me.

    I knew it was related to something my older daughter had said about her college applications. We were discussing potential essay topics, particularly the ever-popular one about overcoming an obstacle or setback. “I just don’t have one I could write about,” she said.

    At first I accepted that remark at face value, although I was hard-pressed to explain how someone could reach the age of 17 without ever having a serious setback. Sure, my kids are over-privileged, but no more than the rest of their peers. She must mean there’s no setback she wants to write about publicly. I can understand that. Still, her comment nagged at me.
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    Finally, a few days later it came to me.

    Both of my daughters had a serious setback in their young lives. Nearly a decade ago, when they were five and eight, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of my biggest fears after being diagnosed--after dying and leaving my children motherless--was that my children were going to be emotionally damaged by the trauma of having a sick mother. My death, or their fear of it, would mar their otherwise happy childhoods. They would grow up insecure and nervous, always worried about the future. They would view me as weak and compromised, in need of special treatment, and they wouldn’t feel free to unleash their teenage girl angst upon me.

    The lesson there, I guess, is to be careful of what you wish for. These days I would be grateful for a little less teenage girl angst hurled in my direction.

    Back then, my husband and I did everything we could to shield them from my illness. We kept them to their familiar routines, imported relatives and friends to help out, read books and consulted psychologists about how much truth to tell them. But we couldn’t protect them from everything. They watched me lose my hair, even though I always wore a wig or turban, even to sleep. For the first time in their lives, I was home full-time for eight months instead of at the office for 8 to 10 hour stretches. What I remember from that time is how they preferred a sick, bald mother with no energy, home all the time, to a healthy mother who went to the office.

    Whatever we did, it seems to have worked. So far, I haven’t seen any signs of emotional damage on their part, and it’s not for lack of trying. That’s the good part. The bad part: They don’t seem to remember, or appreciate, that we weathered a family trauma. They treat me with the same contempt and disregard that most normal teenage girls have for their mothers. And to think this is what I hoped for back then!

    Are they blocking out our cancer experience or did they truly forget? I asked them. The younger one says she barely remembers that time; the older one remembers vaguely but says it wasn’t a big deal.

    That was my goal, wasn’t it? No big deal. I’m glad, really, that they don’t have emotional scars. I will repeat that mantra to myself every time I get upset about messy rooms, sarcastic comments and general lack of appreciation. Really.
Published On: October 19, 2005