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Why I Told My Kids, "I Have Cancer"

By Jen Singer

Moments before my husband and my mother-in-law brought my kids into my hospital room, I panicked. "Don’t turn this into a scene from 'Terms of Endearment,' " I mumbled to myself. After all, I wasn’t dying. Well, I was, but once I was to start chemotherapy, my chances of living would improve dramatically. And that, I decided, is what I would concentrate on when I told my children, Nicholas, then 10, and Christopher, 8, that I had cancer.

Just two nights earlier, Chris had asked me, “What’s the worst disease you can get?” Reflexively, I had replied, “Cancer.” But I soon retracted my answer, citing all the cancer survivors right in our own neighborhood -- including a 12-year-old schoolmate of theirs -- as proof that maybe cancer wasn’t all that bad after all.

Good thing, too, because it made it easier for me to put on a big smile when they stood at the foot of my hospital bed two nights later, looking at the X-ray of the 15-centimeter tumor in my lung, the result of Stage 3 non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I tried to sell them on the idea that the giant blob in my chest wasn’t as scary as it seemed. I think I did a good job of it. Also, of ignoring the horrified look on my mother-in-law’s face.

Other parents have since hinted that maybe I shouldn’t have done it that way -- or at all. To them, “The Big C” is just too frightening to share with the kids. Better to hide it from them, they believe. But I believe they’re wrong.

I didn’t want my kids to overhear that their mother had cancer while at the school bus stop or on the sidelines at baseball games or sitting in the other room while I asked my oncologist for more pain meds over the phone. And I didn’t want them to fill in the blanks of what wasn’t said with something worse. Besides, I’d soon end up bald and in the hospital for much of the following month, and then on the couch for most of the summer as well-wishers cooked for us and took my kids to swim meets and on playdates. How could I explain that except with the truth?

Of course, that truth was filtered, often with humor. We held a Wacky Wig Contest, encouraging friends to send the craziest wig to cover my bald head. So, every now and then, I’d see our tall blue Marge Simpson wig pass by the front window along with a baseball being tossed up in the air. Making fun of cancer proved to be therapeutic for us all.

But I didn’t let my kids see me cry, and I never let them know how very scared I was. I saved that for the grown-ups.

I have been in remission for 18 months now; I just had another clear PET scan. This time, I didn’t tell my kids that I was going to have a scan, instead waiting until I got the good news the next day.

“I thought something was up,” Christopher admitted.

Next time, I’m telling him the truth.

Jen Singer blogs about tweens for Good Housekeeping and writes the blog She has two boys.

By Stacey Garfinkle |  June 2, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Guest Blogs
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Great perspective, Jen. My best to you in your continued good health.

Posted by: cheekymonkey | June 2, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Jen, your approach of grace with humor and honesty is wonderful. Kids know when something is wrong and arming terrifying things with the truth teaches them they can get through it. Good luck and good laughs with your recovery.

Posted by: StrollerMomma | June 2, 2009 8:34 AM | Report abuse

Great outlook! This story hit home for me. My best friend went through a similar situation this fall/winter and is thankfully doing well now. Trying on funky wigs was certainly the highlight of the situation and made for some serious laughs. I wish you continued good health!

Posted by: thosewilsongirls | June 2, 2009 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Nice blog Jen, but I do have a question. What's a pet scan? A cat scan with lab results? [Snort]

Although I think it is doubtful that a parent can shield a battle with cancer from an 8 year old, nor that any good could come from trying to do so, what about explaining it to toddlers or kids too young to understand disease and death?

I once had to make a decision on bringing my 5 and 1 year old to the hospital after a particularly difficult delivery my wife went through with our 3rd. Even the 1 year old knew something major was up, and I couldn't convince her that mommy was OK unless she saw her with her own eyes.

So against the explicit will of my c-sectioned wife, I brought the kids to visit. Other than the disaster and stress caused by my unruly brats, the visit really help calm their anxiety. Seeing their mother all hooked up to wires and monitors didn't bother them a bit. The kids just wanted their hugs and kisses and to hold their baby brother. (and what a mess that turned out to be!) Anyway, I think that most kids are exceptionally receptive to the truth, mor so, than adults.

And though I'll never live this particular stunt down with my wife, I still think I made the best decision.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | June 2, 2009 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I think it's harder on the parents than on the kids, at least when they're fairly young, when parents have to break the news.

Children have very little conception of death, so they take these things in stride.

A lot depends on how much their parent's illness disrupts their lives. If things continue kind of like normal then a bald or ailing parent is just one of those things that come and go in their lives.

Most relaspes happen within the first two years, so you're almost out of the waiting woods. Good luck!

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 2, 2009 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Hello Jen,

Glad you are almost out of the woods on this.

As my darling wife, Frieda, had written on the old On Balance blog, tell the kids right off. They already know something is up. Even at a relatively young age, children sense something is amiss.

Now days, cancer is something to be conquered not feared. As Frieda's onocologist told her the first day we met him. "This isn't your mother's cancer." Treatment options have come a long way since 1975 when her mother died.

Hello to all my old friends out there. Frieda is in total remission and doing fine.


Posted by: Fred_and_Frieda | June 2, 2009 11:03 AM | Report abuse

I love that you did it your way even though everyone else around you told you to do it differently. I met with scores of parents with cancer who I interviewed for my book Everything Changes: The Insider's Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s. These parents had varied approaches to telling their kids depending on their cultural values around discussing illness and the personality of their family.

I hope your story encourages others survivors to seek advice about disclosure to children, but to ultimately make choices that best suit their own lives. Nobody knows your kids better than you.

Posted by: KairolRosenthal | June 2, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

My best wishes to you Jen!

And Fred, thanks for posting about Frieda. I thought of both of you as soon as I started reading. My best to you guys, too!

Yep, I agree - tell the kids what's going on, at whatever level they're capable of understanding. DH just had a colonoscopy a couple of weeks ago. Not nearly as big of a deal as most treatments for cancers, but the boys definitely knew what was up ahead of time. When I picked them up after school that day (normally, I'd be at work in San Francisco, and DH would be picking them up from their schools in Oakland) they asked me when I'd go pick up their dad from the procedure, and I answered that he was already at home, but he was very "silly" from the drugs they had to give him, and so he couldn't drive. When we got home, he was in bed asleep - which wasn't where I'd left him.

But the boys were fine with all of it. They even helped me prepare dinner, and that's *really* out-of-the ordinary at our house. First, DH is THE cook, and there are a *lot* of family jokes about my attempts at cooking (all true, which makes them even funnier). And second, both boys normally will try to avoid any kind of meal-chores, older son especially, but neither of them showed the slightest hesitation that evening. They even wanted to bring their dad dinner in bed - which didn't work so well, because he had to get his insulin before he could start eating. But it was really sweet of them.

Letting them know ahead of time not only reduced their stress, it reduced mine because they knew that I needed them to pitch in and lend a hand while their dad was down.

Posted by: SueMc | June 2, 2009 1:44 PM | Report abuse

Fred, thanks for the update on Freida. Such great news! I think of you two a lot when I lurk here, so it's really good to know that Freida is doing so well.

Oh, and I also agree that the truth is better than pretending that everything is just fine. Kids are very perceptive, and they are also quite resilient. We insult them when we don't tell them the truth.


Posted by: lsturt | June 2, 2009 6:30 PM | Report abuse

Best wishes for a quick recovery, Jen!

My father had to tell my brother (then 14) and me (then 17) that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. I'm sure that was absolutely the hardest thing he ever had to do. He wanted to tell us himself, not for my mother to have to do it, and I admire him for that. I could write more, but I'm going to keep those memories for myself. He was a very brave man.

Posted by: plawrimore1 | June 3, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Thanks, everyone. Best to all of you, too.

Posted by: jensinger | June 3, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

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