Why I Haven’t Told My Kids I Had Cancer
It’s been seven years, but I'm still not ready to have this talk.
I’ve never said the word “died” in front of my children. I’ve never said “dead” or “death” either. I’ve never used the word “kill.” Birds simply eat worms with no further discussion of what becomes of the consumed invertebrates. Cats go to live with people that can take better care of them when they get old and sick.
What do I tell them about moms?
It’s been seven years since I went into remission from non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Seven years. That’s more than a lifetime ago—two lifetimes if we’re counting those of my kids. It’s less time than it takes to get a medical degree, yet ample time to wage a war. It’s a federal prison term. It’s 122,304 Muppet Shows.
There’s a scientific theory that it takes seven years to replace every cell in your body. If that’s the case, this body—the one I inhabit right now—has never been touched by cancer.
These fingertips have never tingled with neuropathy. These veins have never thrombosed or collapsed with the weight of cold chemicals. The lining of this throat has never torn. This scalp has never bristled against the cold of a satin pillowcase. The skin on this chest has never stretched over a malignant mound of tumor protruding from between these ribs that have never bent against its mass. This uterus has never known barrenness. Seven years.
I don’t feel new. I don’t even feel gently used. I feel ancient. Vulnerable. Like I must stay ever vigilant. My theoretically fresh young eyes are drawn to the tiny white dash upon the new skin of my left breast and I can feel the biopsy needle plunging repeatedly between my ribs, reaching for the tumor. These lungs still panic when plagued with chronic cough. This brain, this body, seven years later still remembers what it felt like to be inhabited by cancer.
I think about it all the time, in fact—about the cancer, mortality, and my death in particular. I thought I had made peace with my inevitable demise after five years of clean CT scans and two years of seeing a therapist. Considering what this body has been through, it’s safe to say I’m well past my mid-life crisis. Then again, my life expectancy is drastically higher than it was before this body responded to chemo. With two boys under the age of five, the way I think about death has shifted though. It’s moved from “I don’t want to cease to exist,” to “I don’t want my kids to be motherless.”
My oldest discovered my forgotten chemo wigs when he was three, but showed no surprise at learning I was once even balder than his Pop Pop. Is it something we even have to discuss? Are lies of omission so terrible? At what age does mortality start to register?
In another seven years, this uterus will never have known swelling with life. All the cells that bathed in my fluid will be gone from their bodies. Round heels will have never railed against the constraints of my belly, testing boundaries even then. In seven years, will they somehow be less mine?
Will they be old enough then? How can I teach them about the fleeting magic of life without paralyzing them with fear? There are already so many metaphorical monsters lurking under their beds and in the darkened recesses of their closet. Will they be able to understand that the illness was in the past and not hiding in the shadows, waiting to burst forth and attempt to devour me, or them, again?
Fear fades with time, or so they say. Secrets don’t—they fester. But secrets can hold no power over you if you push them into the light. I want my children to know that. So someday, when I am brave enough, I will push this secret into the light. Someday, I will tell them how getting sick completely changed my life plans. I will tell them how I decided my life was already off track when this body let the cancer cells multiply unchecked. I will explain that the hours I spent tethered to IV poles allowed me time to think about not squandering this life should I be granted a reprieve.
I will show them how even the most terrifying circumstances can bring untold joys. How being too weak to return to my career gave me permission to envision a life filled with a different vocation. How my fear of being silenced forever empowered me to finally find my voice. How fighting desperately for my own life made me realize that I wanted to create one. And how the support I received from my brothers during such a dark time convinced me to brave another pregnancy so that the child I created could also have his own witness and partner in crime.
Seven years later I have to believe I will infuse each new cell they generate with the confidence that comes with being unconditionally loved and supported. More importantly, I will infuse my own with the declaration that should I make a mistake in how I tell him, that I will be here long enough to fix it.