I have a monster in the cupboard. We don't need to look at him every day, so we keep him in the cupboard. My husband and I know he's there. We take him out from time to time, but not often; he's so scary. I thought my daughter knew he was there. She didn't. She didn't know we had a monster.
The monster is the fact that breast cancer kills.
My daughter, the Bean, was eight years old when I was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. The day we got the biopsy results, we told her. It was a "Hockey Fights Cancer" game night for our Ottawa Senators. We thought that might help. Before the game, she got into her jammies and she and I sat in the rocking chair, my Sweetie on the bed. After we told her, she started to cry. Why, we asked? She thought everyone with cancer dies. I told her that wasn't true. I told her that there was no cure for my cancer, but there is treatment. I told her that our beloved family doctor has not lost a single breast cancer patient. I told her the truth. But she didn't understand it all.
Last night at bedtime, as we chatted about otherwise happy things, she compared my sister-in-law's rare cancer to breast cancer and said something along the line that no one dies from breast cancer. I winced. Without a doubt, I will never win a poker game. My face shows too much. So, I winced and said that sometimes people die of breast cancer. I didn't elaborate. I just told her the truth.
To her credit, impressive for a ten year old with a history of anxiety problems, she said, "that's enough about that" and changed the subject. Still, the monster was out of the cupboard for a moment.
My Sweetie wasn't happy about this exchange. I want to preserve her childhood, her innocence, as much as he does. But in the moment she said what she did, I was afraid that some day, when I take a turn for the worse, she would feel like I had been lying to her about my ability to fight this disease. It is ugly, but it is the truth: breast cancer will kill me. I don't want her to confuse my attitude with invincibility.
I am quite happy to put the monster back in the cupboard and leave him there as long as possible. I don't like the monster. Not one bit. But she is my girl, and I had to tell her the truth.
Can I ask, moms with mets and tweens, how much do your children understand about Stage IV cancer. Do you keep your monster in the cupboard or on a shelf? How do you balance honesty and innocence?
The Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation runs the Maplesoft Centre here in town, not far from the hospital where I get my care. Maplesoft offers the Wonders and Worries series for children aged five to twelve to help them cope with a cancer diagnosis to their parent or grandparent. We've told the Bean about the program, but she says she isn't interested. If your child needs help, in the Ottawa area, please contact the Maplesoft Centre at 613.247.3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
You may also want to read the new book, "My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks" by father and daughter team Marc and Maya Silver. I was fortunate enough to win this book from Nancy Stordahl at Nancy's Point. The book offers a terrific compilation of practical advice, much of it from teens who have lived with their parent's cancer diagnosis or even death. The book is written for teens. The Bean isn't ready for it yet, in terms of maturity rather than reading ability. Nevertheless, the book has given me an idea or two to open up the conversation about cancer. After my diagnosis, she had so many questions for me about cancer and the treatment I was getting. She, like her parents, got the hang of it after about six months. Now she doesn't really want to talk about it. I don't know if that's good or bad. I certainly don't want to make her life "all cancer, all the time." But neither do I want her to live completely in denial. I'm a big fan of denial, don't get me wrong, but it's a matter of proportion. That's why the monster lives in the cupboard, but we don't pretend he's moved out.