I Decided To Stop Hiding My Breast Cancer From My Kids, and It Made Our Family Even Stronger
"Mama, are you going to die?"
There have been several moments in my life as a parent that changed the trajectory of how I navigate being a guardian to tiny human beings. But none left me as shaken as the moment when my 3-year-old son crawled into bed with me and asked that question.
I said no, of course, and hugged and kissed him for extra assurance. But I couldn't blame him for asking. I was in treatment for breast cancer, and he had no idea. Neither did his 7-year-old sister. All he knew was that I was in bed a lot, that I couldn't play, and that I wasn't reading him stories. He got angry and called me lazy. My daughter navigated things more quietly. She read to him and brought me glasses of juice and plates of fruit. She realized things were bad, but how bad did she think it was? I don't know because I didn't talk to them about what was happening. It may have been the worst parenting decision I've ever made.
I felt I was protecting them from a hard conversation, from something scary, from the kind of fears that led my son to ask if I would die. But the truth was, I was terrified. I feared I wouldn't make it.
Finding the tumor when they did was pure luck. I was in my 30s, had no family history of cancer, never smoked, ate well, and was still taking the occasional ballet class. But a plugged duct when I was breastfeeding my son had led to my first mammogram, so I had follow-ups. This was my third, and the tiny spot in the scan definitely seemed like a cyst. Until it was definitely Stage I cancer. Because of the type and size of my cancer, there were no standard guidelines. The doctors left it up to me to decide if I would have surgery and radiation alone or add chemo. I was overwhelmed. Confused. Devastated.
I couldn't talk about it with anyone—certainly not with the kids. My husband and I told them as little as we could. Mama was ill. Mama would be fine.
Then we sent them away.
The day after school ended in June, the three of us were on a plane to Trinidad so they could spend part of the summer with my mother. For the first time ever, I would not be staying with them. It would be the longest we'd ever been apart. While they seemed fine with the arrangement, I cried silently on the five-hour flight back. The next day, I had surgery to put in my port. The day after that, I started chemo.
I looked different when they returned two months later. Considerably heavier from steroids, bald, and a bit grayish in skin tone. They were glad to be home but definitely didn't understand.
My daughter pieced together what was going on from a TV commercial with women who, like me, had their heads wrapped in beautiful scarves. She came to me, and the word cancer was uttered for the first time between us. My son found a wig I'd bought when I had to take a new photo to renew my driver's license. Why was I bald? The jig was up.
Seven months after my doctor called me into his office with the news, I finally had to deal with the emotional impact of my diagnosis so that my children could deal with it too. I was a former teacher. I'd taken child psychology classes. I wrote books for children, and yet this was gutting to navigate. I don't recall exactly what we said. All I remember is the feeling of having my nerves be on the outside of my body.
At first, the kids were angry. What had we always told them about honesty? Could they even trust us anymore? But they were relieved to know what was going on, and then they helped me think more clearly about my treatment options. I had been resisting having a blood transfusion, and they convinced me that was silly. Wouldn't the transfusion make me feel better?
From then on, when they had questions, we answered them. Anything we didn't know warranted a trip to the public library. What was cancer anyway? How big is a centimeter? How many more treatments did I have? We counted down. We celebrated my final chemo session and then watched as my hair started to grow back. My new TWA (teeny weeny Afro) was nice! When I finally scraped my hair into a ponytail again, we all cheered. (Okay, I did, and they joined to please me.)
What I had thought would be too difficult turned out to be simple. It was easier to be truthful with them. It was easier to have them on board with their help and their opinions. It was easier to foster relationships where we could each say what we needed to say. We made it a habit to talk about all the things. Good things, bad things, completely ridiculous things. And our kids, now 19 and 15, are always talking about something. Racism, police brutality, issues facing the LGBTQ+ community, capitalism. We've learned that it can be hard to start a conversation sometimes, but there are a million surprising ways a talk can go.
The chemo port scar on my chest is the only physical reminder of what we went through, but we are all different now because of it. We were lucky. My treatment was over in nine months, which is quick compared with other cancer survivors, and I've had no recurrence. But my husband and I feel we're just as lucky that our teens want to be close to us and that we can talk about anything. We all know what we have and what we can lose. Every six months when I go to my oncologist, we're very much aware of that.
Tracey Baptiste is a New York Times best-selling author whose middle-grade nonfiction book, African Icons: Ten People Who Shaped History, and picture book, Looking for a Jumbie, will both be out this fall.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2021 issue as "Hiding My Breast Cancer From My Kids." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.