I’ve had breast cancer not once, but twice. When I heard those dreaded words, the diagnosis I never thought would be mine, I felt like my world was falling apart. I disassociated often at the beginning of my journey, from labs to my mastectomy and throughout my many appointments. How could this be happening to me? Then I realized that my kids needed me. Mothering didn’t stop just because cancer had started.
As scary as cancer is, I knew that hiding my diagnosis from my children wouldn’t decrease their anxiety. They are smart and can easily overhear conversations. Plus, I knew it would be far too much work to keep my cancer journey a secret from them. My husband and I decided it was best to be transparent, without overburdening the kids with any gruesome details.
I learned about a wonderful children’s picture book called B.K.’s Mommy Has Breast Cancer, which I read to my kids. I also told them I had something inside me that didn’t belong: it was called breast cancer, and the doctors were going to remove it. I let them know that my surgical recovery would be long—six weeks.
During that time, I would need them to be my big helpers. They gladly took on some additional responsibilities—like moving laundry from the washer to the dryer—knowing it was helping me heal. They also brought me tea and snacks and lay beside me reading, while I napped. They knew I couldn’t lift more than a few pounds, and they enjoyed stepping up and showing me how strong they were when needed. Giving my kids tasks that collectively helped our family empowered them.
I was well aware that this journey would not only be emotional for me, but for my children. That’s why we established that all feelings were allowed. Any questions our kids had could be asked. We would never take offense to them processing my cancer on their own terms. In fact, we would be there to support them through it, because when one person in the family gets cancer, the whole family goes through the grief and the fight.
Unfortunately, my cancer returned three-and-a-half years later. This time, the journey was much different. For one, I was far more mentally healthy. Cancer didn’t bombard me as it did before. Instead, I felt both angry and prepared to tackle the beast. I had an amazing medical team and plan—and of course, a supportive family.
During this same time, I also sought to have my breast implants removed. I was experiencing an increasing amount of concerning symptoms and wanted to be free of them as quickly as possible. My natural breasts were a C-cup, which changed into a D-cup with implants. My suddenly becoming flat-chested was going to take some adjusting for our whole family. I was going to look different—both from the implant removal and from upcoming cancer treatments.
Again, we told our kids what was happening. Mommy’s fake boobies were going bye-bye. I didn’t like how they made me feel. I would have restrictions post-surgery. However, soon I would be free to hug and lift my children without those bags sewn into my chest, creating distance.
After my surgery, which also removed the cancerous mass in my chest wall, I spent about four weeks recovering before beginning once-a-week chemo for three solid months. I prepared my children. In fact, my second daughter and I got big haircuts together. She donated her locks to an organization that makes wigs for children who experience hair loss.
We found ways to celebrate each accomplishment, rather than dwell on how hard it was. After all, it was difficult enough—losing a lot of my hair, my energy, and my privacy. We might as well take the wins as they came.
When I finished chemo, my kids and husband stood outside the windows of the infusion center, watching me ring the golden bell. They held up neon signs they’d decorated. When I finished 33 rounds of radiation, my husband and youngest showed up to cheer me on. And when I finally completed a year of immunotherapy infusions, the whole crew showed up, sporting their pink shirts and shouting with joy.
My kids, at times, enjoyed my recovery. They got to lay in bed with me and watch movies of their choosing. I wasn’t able to attend their activities or even play outside with them, but we spent time together in other ways. We also had lots of time to lounge around and chat. I share this to say, cancer was horrible, but there were moments of joy that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
My children also learned how to advocate for themselves in medical settings, as well as how to show up and take on difficult tasks, even when it takes immense courage. They watched me do it every single day.
We can educate our children and hold space for them to process tough situations without scaring them. In doing so, we empower them to face whatever life throws their way.