Even though it will be a couple of weeks before we have a clearer diagnosis and prognosis, I didn’t want to wait to tell my children that I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Already the news is spreading amongst our close friends, and we have the good fortune of being part of a very close and very social community. The kids of my close friends are my kid’s close friends. Rarely does a week go by when we don’t have dinner with another family or two, or a playdate for our children, or a casual, drop-in visit. And rarely does a week go by when you won’t find several of us parents sitting around a kitchen table or living room floor, chatting about all the things going on in our lives while our combined brood roams and plays in and out of our laps, our conversations rarely far from their earshot. Bottom line: I didn’t want to take the chance that my children would overhear “Jenny” and “breast cancer” in the same sentence from anyone other than me.
So last week (just two days after I was diagnosed), my mom, Josh, and I told the kids we had something important to talk about. The grown-ups prepped ahead of time. I said I wanted to do most of the talking. We agreed to say as little as possible, let them ask if/when they wanted to know or simply talk more; and to keep the language as positive – but also as honest – as possible.
Harrison (my nine-year old) was deep into his legos and Sophie (my six-year-old) was playing alongside him when we called them into the living room. With all of us settled on the blue couch, I hesitated a bit, stumbling to get started before telling them that we found out this week that I have breast cancer. That we have a lot of doctors and friends and family who will be supporting us and that I plan to get better. I don’t remember saying all that much else, other than a couple of smaller points: that I would be going to a lot of appointments, so other people would be taking them to school and picking them up at times. That I was going to write their teachers, so they would know what was going on.
Harrison lay his head in my mom’s lap before the conversation started and was almost silent the entire time. Sophie wiggled between Josh and me and put me at ease with her many questions, let me know she wasn’t going to keep her feelings and concerns inside.
It seemed like Harrison wanted to be done with it all, and I told him he could go back to his legos if he wanted, but he stayed put for a bit longer. Sophie asked why it was called breast cancer, and I said because it was in my breast.
After a couple of other questions from Sophie (“Why are you telling our teachers?” “Will you give Ms. Brown a note on Monday?”) she asked again, “But why is it called breast cancer?” Again I said because it’s in my breast. When she asked a third time, I finally got that she was asking me something more.
“Are you wondering about that word, ‘cancer’?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think I’ve heard it before.”
And then Harrison spoke for the first time. “That’s what Ran-Ran had.” In other words, that’s why his other grandmother died (ovarian cancer). So he had been chewing on that in silence for several minutes. Oh my aching heart.
I explained that Ran-Ran (the word a very little Harrison made from “granny”) did die of cancer, but a very different kind of cancer, one that is much harder to find and get better from. That I have a kind of cancer that many, many people get well from and that’s what I planned to do. Then we told them that Zayde (my father) has prostate cancer. “Did you even know that? He’s had it for years and he’s fine; you didn’t even know he has cancer.” How convenient that we could share this truth as a way to stress that there are many kinds of cancers—and that mine is hopefully beatable.
We didn’t make any promises. I’m a real stickler for not making breakable promises. But we focused on what we all hope and think and pray is true.