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Telling My Kids I'm Sick

The other day I looked over at my 5-year-old daughter while she furiously drafted a rainbow at her art table. She must have sensed my stare because she looked up at me, broke into a reflexive grin, and then turned back to her paper and crayons.

It struck me hard at that moment that I’m her mom, and I have cancer.

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My husband and I are avoiding telling her anything about my diagnosis until just before the surgery. It seems unfair and totally unnecessary to let her in on anything before it’s time, or burden her with more information than her young mind can handle.

“When it’s time, you just need to tell her that part of your body isn’t working as well as it should, so the broken parts are coming off and being replaced with new ones,” one friend wisely advised.

What I worry about, though, is that beyond frightening her with any changes to my body—and she notices even minor ones, like a faint scrape on my pinky—is it bringing her sense of security to a halt.

She became aware of death a year ago when a dear friend of the family who was just 17 months old passed away suddenly. We told her his body stopped working, and that while everyone will die one day, for most people, it won’t be for a very long time.

She will see me in pain, she will see my bandages and scars.

There’s nothing in my prognosis to suggest I’m going anywhere anytime in the next half century. Still, I’m 40 and continue to project almost a total sense of infallibility on my parents. As far as I’m concerned, even when they’re faced with medical and other challenges, they always pull through unscathed. I get that they’re human—I get that even more now that I’m an adult—but from the time I was aware of good and evil, they wondrously instilled in me the feeling that they would always take care of themselves, and me.

Certainly my parents have encountered their fair share of blips, but that mostly didn’t start happening (at least to my knowledge) until I was much older than my older daughter is now. She’s still a little girl and, while her concept of death and other disasters is fairly concrete, it’s not so real just yet. She doesn’t know what “cancer” means. Of course we’ll only be able to shield her from the ugly word for so long.

Both of my daughters watch me get ready every morning, often waiting in my bathroom until I exit the shower. As little information as I want to impart to them, they will see my empty, battered chest in the weeks after the surgery. I can sugarcoat it to the hilt, but they’re just young, not stupid.

Maybe it’ll end up being one of those “life isn’t fair” and “not everything happens for a reason” conversations. There’s no question that kids need to learn resiliency. I just feel sick about the fact my older daughter’s first lesson in digging deep and being strong is coming so much earlier than I ever anticipated—and that it comes at the expense of seeing her most-trusted protector as undeniably human.

She will see me in pain, she will see my bandages and scars. And I know that can be scarring in and of itself. I wish I could have protected her from my vulnerability for a few more decades, the way my parents had done.

RELATED: The Cancer Chronicles: Part 4

The most important thing, of course, is that, warts and all, I will be around to continue safeguarding her even after my scars heal. It’s just a shame that once we tell her what’s happening, my presumed invincibility will be perhaps irreparably damaged—another cancer victim, even if not, quite thankfully, in the literal sense.

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