Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Someone Took the Monster Out of the Cupboard

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 info@ottawacancer.ca.

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.


  1. An incredible post. I'm sorry that monster lives in your cupboard. Hope it stays locked up in there for a very long time. As mothers, we instinctively try to protect our children. I understand your husband's uneasiness, but I admire you so much for telling the truth to your girl. Good for you.

    And thank you so much for the link!

  2. Symptoms of Mesothelioma its a type of cancer ................. its a good blog keep it up

  3. For me, mine has always been on the shelf, not in the cupboard. It is a balancing act which is a very tough one. Mine darling was 4 years old when I was dx as stage IV, but that was in 1998. I didn't want to hide it from her...as people tend to talk about stuff in front of little kids, and I thought being able to explain things as she was able to absorb was a better way of dealing with it. I also wanted her to know as she was a daughter....and thus at risk.

    When I had my additional recurrence in 2010, when she was starting her senior year, she knew I could die from this before her graduation. I told her I didn't think I was going to go that quickly, but acknowledged it was possible. Honesty, tempered with what she is able to take in, has always been my policy.

    I am happy to say that I think my daughter is a stronger and better person. She knows what is small stuff and what is big stuff....unfortunately, she thinks I am pretty invincible....but that's OK....I'm working on it.

    I hope that you both have a good long time to learn how to slay monsters in the cupboard.

    1. Thank you, Lisa. Hearing your experience helps me a lot. I admit that I want my daughter to think I'm invincible, because I want her to feel she is too. I really want her to grow up strong.

      Ah, if only all this fundraising could slay the monster!

  4. Hi Kate, my kids were 2 and 7 when I was first diagnosed and less than a year older when I was diagnosed with mets. That was in 2006. They've pretty much grown up with a mother living with cancer.
    When Jack Layton died in 2011, my spouse and kids went to the spontaneous vigil on Parliament Hill. I had been out with friends and we all arrived at home at the same time. My youngest threw himself into my arms, crying, "I didn't know you could DIE from cancer!" It was heartbreaking.
    Like you, I thought he knew. We had a good talk that night and a cuddle and some tears - and then he re-bounded.
    I think it's always good to talk openly to your kids - in a way that is age appropriate. It seems to me that you handled the situation perfectly.
    All the advice that I've had on the issue is to tell the truth and let them take the lead on how much deeper they want to go.
    The monster is a very appropriate metaphor, Kate. You're a lovely writer.

    1. Thank you, Laurie, for your perspective, and the compliment.

  5. Kate, this post brought tears to my eyes. It's got to be the hardest thing to talk to one's child(ten) about the monster in the cupboard. Thank you for your candor and sharing part of your life with us. Beautiful post.

  6. My youngest was 16 when BC started for me, 19 when stage IV hit... so I can't offer first hand insight regarding tweens. But, after reading your beautiful post I thought about how I would have dealt with the news if my boys were younger. I could relate it to their father leaving when my youngest was 9 and the other two in their teens, not a death sentence of course, but it certainly rocked their world. So, I agree with total honesty, that's how we dealt with things... but also agree that your daughter will guide you through the amount of disclosure she is ready to hear. The way you handle it and the way you write about it, both perfect to me. Much love...

    1. Thanks, Carolyn! Sorry that your boys have had their work rocked again.

  7. Poignant, beautiful, honest post. Thank you for writing it!