When you become a mother, you worry about keeping your children safe from getting hurt. You focus on making sure they’re eating their fruits and vegetables. You stress out about their nap times. What you don’t anticipate when you become a mother is having to explain to your child that you have cancer.
Being a work-from-home mother, I thrive on routine. I also thrive on the six glorious hours I have to myself each day when my oldest is at school. But one day that changed.
My mother-in-law, Beverly, had gone to pick my son up from school and bring him home. When they arrived, Declan, who was three and a half years old at the time, went to play in his room by himself. My youngest one was napping. After making sure the kids were settled and out of earshot, Beverly asked me, “Have you told Declan that you have cancer?”
“No, we haven’t yet,” I told her. “I’m still trying to figure out how to say it, and whether or not I want to use that word. Right now, we’re just saying that I’m sick and the doctors are helping me get better.”
Beverly gave me a little look. When she went to pick Declan up at school, she said, his teacher asked if she could do anything to help our family. Beverly wasn’t sure how much my husband and I had shared with the school, so she said rather vaguely that our family was still in the beginning stages of understanding the next steps, and to keep us in her prayers.
During the car ride home, Beverly asked Declan if his teacher asked about Mommy at all.
“Yes, and I told her Mommy has cancer. Does Mommy have cancer?”
That broke my heart y’all. I was sad that he even had to use that word in the first place. I was sad that he used that word and I didn’t get a chance to explain it first.
A Not-So-Secret Secret
After Chris got home from work that day, we decided we needed to be open and honest with our son. Which was a weird concept. Open and honest with a three year old? How does that even work?
I’d been so intent on shielding Declan from the word cancer since this all began. At his age, I thought, he doesn’t know what that word means nor should he. His world is filled with donuts, dinosaurs, dirt, cars, and playing catch. This isn’t the stage in life where you’re supposed to be trying to comprehend the word cancer. Also, the only other time he’d heard that word (if he even understood) was because Grandpa and Grandma passed away from it. So I didn’t want him to associate cancer and Mommy together.
But with the proverbial cat out of the bag, we had to say something. Finally, we asked him, “Declan, did the teacher ask you anything about Mommy today?”
“Yes,” said Declan, matter-a-factly. “She asked, ‘How are Mommy and Daddy doing?’ And I said, ‘My Mommy has cancer.’”
“Where did you hear that word?” I asked tearfully.
“You say it to Daddy all the time,” my son told me.
Chris and I both burst out laughing. We weren’t expecting that at all! They always say kids are so intuitive. But you know what else? Kids hear everything. I thought to myself, this is God showing me how to explain cancer in a way I never would have thought before. In a way, it softened my heart and broke down the wall I was hiding behind.
Chris and I were trying so hard to shield our son by not saying that word around him. We would always lower our voice when we said the word, or just not really talk about it when he was in the room. But we took for granted the times we were on the phone or talking to the neighbors outside. If Declan was in earshot, he probably heard about cancer.
We decided to use this moment as a teaching opportunity. The language we used came courtesy of my sister, who is in education and understands how to adapt words in a way that children will understand. When I was first diagnosed, I asked my sister, how am I going to tell Declan? She suggested using the words “bad germs.” Kids understand “germs” because we talk about the germs on our hands and having to wash them all the time.
So that’s what we did. Chris started off by explaining what bad germs were. Next, he explained that I had bad germs and the doctors I was seeing were helping to get the bad germs out of my body. My son just sat there, nodding along and fully paying attention. I followed up by saying the doctors would soon be giving me a lot of medicine that might make me tired, but that was OK because it would help get all the bad germs out of my body.
We asked Declan if he had any questions. He shook his head no, and asked if he could go back and play. And that was it.
During my toughest days of chemo that found me on the couch, Declan would ask if I was tired and then say, “But that means the medicine is working and getting all the bad germs in your body out, right?” I’d nod my head yes and we’d sit on the couch and watch another episode of Paw Patrol. Those moments made me smile, because my son knew I needed rest—and understood why.
Moving forward, this series of events changed my view on how I wanted to mother. I don’t want to hide anything from my children. God gave me these children because he knew I was strong enough to mother them. I wanted to keep that promise. I wanted to be honest with my children. After all, that’s what we teach them, right? Always tell the truth. How could I be raising two sons and not be upholding the same truths as I was asking them to do?
Since that conversation with Declan, Chris and I continue to be open about life with cancer. It’s not easy. We’re still learning. If our son has questions, we answer them. And we always include in our prayers our thanks to God for keeping Mommy strong and healthy and to never let the cancer come back.
Last week on Mother’s Day, while I savored all the extra time with my two sons, I also thought about the way life’s circumstances have made my children understand something a lot of kids their age might not understand. It’s how to be compassionate when someone you love is sick with the big word “cancer”—la mala palabra or "the bad word," as my mother would put it.
That, my friends, is something I can live with.