Back in September these were five words that I had to say to Will and Liam. Finding the time, determining the place, developing the set-up, anticipating their response, and forcing myself to just do it – these things were more stressful than any other moment since the day the radiologist gave me that undeniable “you have cancer” look.
I had already been through the “I have a little tumor of breast cancer and the surgeon is going to take it out.” Both understood my sore side and smothered me with gentle kisses (plus one strong kick), asked how I was feeling, and helped me get better with homemade cards. I recovered quickly from all three surgeries. Perhaps not completely back to my normal “farm muscle” self, but enough to take my sons to school, to pick them up every day, and to take care of them after school.
But now to deal with this next stage. There are scads of books on how to talk to children about cancer and chemo. I read through a few of them, none seemed just right. One started with two little girls in tears because their mother had cancer. Another described chemo as a shark eating the cancer cells and attacking some good cells along the way. Its downfall: the illustrations. The bald mother was bright green like an alien. I had no intent to be bald AND green.
I referred back to Cancer 101 that Bill and I had in our local pub after I was diagnosed. We were going to live in the moment. Some moments we would have to deal with cancer, other moments were ours to live as we chose. Cancer could not be a cloud lurking above all of our moments. From all the side effects that could possibly happen, I chose to talk specifically about what would be most noticeable to the boys.
Losing sleep over this imminent conversation, I had to just do it and be done with it. One day after school, I took a bag of hats to the living room and sat down with the boys, and I started my speech. “Remember the surgeries I had to take the cancer out? In a few weeks I’m going to take some strong medicine called chemo to make sure ALL the cancer is gone. And guess what, it’s going to make my hair fall out.” Will’s eyes grew to the size of the silver dollars his grandpa gave him for Christmas. “BUT, when I’m done with the medicine my hair will grow back.” His eyes normalized. “I have a bag of hats here and I’m going to put one on and tuck all of my hair in so you will see how funny I’ll look with no hair.” I put a hat on then let them each choose one to wear. The three of us went to work tucking my hair into a beanie cap. Liam got a big kick out of it, laughing with every lock he pushed under the hat. When the job was done, I said, “There, see how funny I look?” Will, our resident Michael Phelps fan, immediately said, “You don’t look funny. You look like a swimmer.” I grinned. Then I told them that I might wear a wig some times. I asked if they knew what that was. Will wasn’t sure. “It’s fake hair,” I explained. “Mom, I’m going to make a wig for you out of Legos!” That sounded painful, but I knew I would have to wear it if it ever came to be.
Switching gears away from hair, I went onto the second most likely thing that would happen. “There are days when I’ll be tired. I won’t have a lot of energy, so I will do something that you don’t like to do in the middle of the day, Will.” Will’s eyes grew again, “NAP?” “Yes, Will, I’ll take a nap.” He couldn’t believe anyone over three would actually want to do that.
From there I simply asked, “Do you have any questions?” Will did. “Can we go play now?” That was it. Our first talk about chemo was done. Will and I talked more in the days following. I pointedly asked on occasion if he had any questions about chemo. And for the first couple weeks he did, or he just wanted the same information repeated, especially when we talked about my white blood cells. From the Magic School Bus, he knows a little bit about white blood cells. He understands why I’m a drill sergeant when it comes to Purelling and washing hands.
Liam on the other hand doesn’t use or completely understand the word chemo, but I feel comfortable telling him “I’m going for chemo today” because we had our chat. Cancer and chemo are not taboo words in our house. Liam focuses on and understands more of what he sees: my scars. He checks them and then asks me, “Are they still owies, Mom?” Not any more.
We never did read about the green mom because fortunately I never turned green. We never read about the two girls crying because the boys haven’t cried over cancer. Keeping cancer where it should be, in its moment, has helped all of us deal with the cancer, the chemo, and my swimmer’s head.