Telling a young child about cancer
What should we tell our five-year-old daughter about my cancer? What is the right thing to say so that she will understand but not be terrified or confused? How much can her Kindergarten brain handle?
My husband and I spent a lot of time in the days since my diagnosis thinking about these questions. And there are plenty of resources that exist for just such a dilemma. The National Cancer Institute has a great page on talking to kids about cancer. But me, I tend to put stock in personal experience. So I asked around in the discussion boards at breastcancer.org. There were some women that said Allison is too young to be told anything, which pretty much no one agreed with. It was so refreshing for me that none of the differences of opinion led to threats of rape and death. I think I’ve been tainted by gaming forums forever.
I feared two things: That Allison would completely freak out and never have another happy carefree moment in her life and/or that I would at last break down and cry about this cancer shit, causing a domino effect in which everyone in the family was weeping and rending garments.
The plan, as of Wednesday was to keep gathering intell and formulate a plan of communication. So basically the plan was to make plans at a future date. It was like being back at Microsoft.
Now, my daughter is on the melodramatic side and always has been. Combine that hard-wired tendency with the knowledge of mortality that arrives around age four and the burst of super-emo in kids around six when the desire to be independent struggles with the urge to still be a baby. Let’s just say Kid 3 and I have already had several tearful conversations about how someday Mommy is going to die. And every time I wanted to promise her I will never die but of course what kind of shitty parent does that?
So, this all had powder keg potential. I knew it had to be done, but maybe I could wait until I was going in for surgery? Or maybe even hold off and tell her if/when I lose my hair? These were the desperate musings of a professional procrastinator.
Wednesday after school she came home wearing different clothes. She’d had an accident. This is a kid that never has accidents. Like maybe once or twice when she was three, and nothing since. My mom instincts told me that it was time. She’d heard us talking, she knew something was going on and no one was being straight with her. We were treating her like she wasn’t even part of the family. It was time. I didn’t even discuss it with my husband.
I pulled Allison onto my lap and said, “I want to tell you something.”
I see Gunny’s eyes widen.
“Mommy has a yucky thing in my boob. Right here. And a doctor is going to get it out and make me better. Okay?”
The yucky thing has a name. Its name is cancer.
“I heard that word before.”
“It’s not like a germ, so you can’t catch it like a cold, okay? You’re not going to get it and Daddy’s not going to get it. The doctor will fix me and I’ll be fine, okay?”
She started to cry. “I’m worried!”
I don’t know what I said. Mommy-murmurs of “It’s okay, I’ve got you” probably. We dried her tears and had some cookies. Because the ladies at breastcancer.org had advised it, I sent her Kindergarten teacher this email:
“Dear Mrs. Kindergarten,
I just wanted to let you know about something going on in our family that might effect Allison’s behavior at school. Last week I was diagnosed with breast cancer (it’s early: stage IIA) and yesterday we told her that I have a “yucky thing” in my boob and its name is cancer and that the doctor is going to get it out. And that she can’t catch it.
So, we wanted you to be aware in case she starts talking about cancer or boobs or acting out in some way.
Thanks for understanding. You’re very important to Allison.”
The next day Allie brought home a picture she’d drawn for me. I got an email from her teacher saying that Allison had come back from lunch upset and they talked about what was going on at home. Mrs Kindergarten told Allie that her own grandma had the same kind of owie and the doctors made her better. Then she gave Allie some extra time to draw a “love note” for me.
For the next couple of days Allison was extra clingy and required many many cuddles. We had a sleepover one night in her bed and watched Barbie Princess Power. She cried a little and threw herself on top of me wailing “I’m worried about that boob thing!” On Friday before her dad walked her to the bus stop she asked me if I’d be here when she got home. She thought maybe it was the day the doctor was going to cut the yucky thing out. I assured her that I will let her know when that happens.
As for the picture she drew me, I keep it in a Spider-Man folder with all my test results and insurance approvals that I carry to my various appointments. So she’s always with me. Because I love my life and my family desperately, but this little girl is why I’m needed on this planet.