[NOTE: Just to be clear, the doctors expect that Eleanor’s moles will turn out to be pre-cancerous lesions – they will be surprised if they discover cancer. But it is at least a slight possibility, and because we’ve talked freely about cancer in our household, it is part of the conversation.]
(This was written the day it happened, but I’ve held it back until we wrote the previous post announcing Eleanor’s pre-cancer diagnosis and surgery plans).
Today I told my child that she might have cancer.
She was asking me about some of the medical supplies in our bathroom. She wanted some for herself and I explained that they were just for me, because of my cancer.
She looked up at me and said “Do I have cancer?”
“I don’t know.” I told her.
“I wish I had cancer.” She said it wistfully.
“Come, my girl. Sit here with me. We need to talk.” We climbed up into the big lounge chair in my bedroom. “Why do you wish you had cancer?”
“Because my tummy hurts and then I could go to the doctors, like you!” There’s toddler logic here. Doctors are pretty exciting to our kids. They are calm and confident little patients, submitting cheerfully or at least willingly to just about everything, even needles (or shots, as they call them – so if my kids ever tell you they shot someone, ask if they were playing doctor). So if her tummy is hurting (she’s fighting a cold), she believes doctors can make it better. What sweet innocence and trust. Also, she wants to do everything Mama does. And Mama goes to the doctor a lot.
“I’m sorry your tummy hurts. But I don’t think that’s cancer. Cancer is a bad thing, my girl. It’s not something to wish for and it’s evil. Doctors can help take care of cancer though. Daddy had cancer, and the doctors gave him medicine to stop the bad cells and help the good ones. I have cancer and the doctors cut it out to slow it down.”
“Do I have cancer?” She asks again.
“I don’t know, Eleanor. The spots on your head – we don’t know if they are cancer or not. After your surgery to take them off, the doctors will check them under a microscope to see if they are cancer.
Look at me, my girl, right into my eyes. This is important.” She looked up at me with wide eyes.
“If they are not cancer, we will love you and take care of you, and the Lord will always be with you. If you do have cancer, we will love you and take care of you and the Lord will always be with you. Do you understand?”
She nods slightly. I ask her if she has any questions for me or if there is anything she wants to tell me. She shakes her head no. I ask her how she is feeling and she takes a deep breath and says “Happy, happy, happy!” in a high-pitched, silly voice, which is what my kids say when they don’t want to talk about their feelings.
She leans in for a hug and I tell her I love her. Then she hops down off my lap and off she goes.
I sit for a moment and just grieve, aching for my child who is so young, has endured so much and is so loving and generous and kind and trusting.
It wasn’t my intention to tell her she might have cancer. We haven’t used that word to her, although she was in the room while we talked about it with the doctors. The first one carefully only used the word ‘malignant’, knowing our history and that she knows the ‘C’ word. The second team didn’t know our history (and who would assume a not yet three-year old knows what cancer is) and so were a little more casual with their terms, which, to be honest, did not bother me. Our philosophy is to be honest, upfront and simple in our explanations to our kids about their bodies and health and our bodies and health. She was distracted at the time and I’m not sure how much she picked up. But she’s pretty observant and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if she’d caught every word and took her time to process and this conversation was just waiting for an opportunity to happen.
I feel sometimes so calm about this all and I wonder if it’s because if I think about it too much I might shatter. I’m grateful for my therapist, for that space and safety to process, for the affirmation that I did the right thing, said the right words, loved her well. For the reminder that I do really well in crisis mode, and that’s where we are until we know what comes next, and this calm is okay, it’s real, it’s a gift.
I’m grateful for my husband, for his steadiness. He is still comforted by statistics (I’m not, cause you know, rare diseases over here!) and the odds are this is not-benign-but-not-yet-cancer at best, or only-just-cancer at worst. The odds that is will require more treatment than just this surgery are so tiny and I am so grateful that he is comforted by that, because I am comforted by him.
I’m grateful for the love that has poured in as we’ve shared and the promises of community, of shared burdens, of holy connections and sacred friendships that reassure us we do not face this alone, but with the whole host of heaven and a whole lot of earth by our side.
But sometimes I just have to sit in the grief. Today I told my child she might have cancer.