My husband, Chris, and I were struggling with how to tell our three boys - Jonah, age 19, Aaron, 17, and Henry, 13 - that I have breast cancer and needed surgery. We thought it was important for them to know, of course, yet we didn't want to unnecessarily frighten them or freak them out. Their grandfather (my dad, who we all called Papa) had passed away a little over a year ago from cancer (lymphoma) and we knew they'd make that association immediately. We had to emphasize that I wasn't going to die from this.
So how to discuss this with them delicately, giving them the information they needed to have, yet not too much information? What is the best language to use when having these conversations with your children, when you want to inform but not to scare them?
Enter Sandy Schindler, the medical social worker who works at the Marin Cancer Center; she specializes in family issues around oncology. She is a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is woman; and she also reminded me of almost every Jewish mother I knew when I lived in New York.
She was not about to mince words. "Listen," she said to us, "You have three teenage boys. There's only so much they're going to want to know about their mother's breasts."
I cracked up then, and every time I've told this story to a mom-friend of mine with boys, they laughed too. Of course! It makes perfect sense, really, when you think about it that way. "Just the facts, Mom," was Sandy's best bit of advice to us.
The other thing she recommended was to tell our oldest son, Jonah, via Skype. This was about a week before he was to come home from college for Thanksgiving - and my surgery was scheduled for a few days after Thanksgiving. Sandy thought it would be best to give Jonah a little time to adjust to the news before coming home; that way, we might be able to have a more relaxed and fun Thanksgiving if all the boys had some time to process this news first.
Anyone who has used Skype knows that it can be a little bit awkward - sometimes the screen freezes, sometimes the words don't quite sync up with someone's mouth moving - but we forged ahead with Skype anyway, feeling this was the best option.
As it turned out, our timing sucked. On the Friday we decided to Skype, Jonah had suffered his first college relationship breakup. That same DAY. So of course we let him talk about it, and talk some more, until he was pretty much talked out. Then he talked about the classes he was thinking about taking next semester, and about the paper he had due for one of his history classes.
Finally, we saw an opening in the conversation. "Jonah, we have something to tell you," Chris said. "Mom has breast cancer. She's going to be fine, you need to know that - but she needs to have surgery right after Thanksgiving."
Jonah sat back in his chair, a look of shock on his face. "Mom, are you OK?" he asked. Fortunately, I felt strong enough not to cry at that moment, which I think reassured him. He asked a few more questions about the surgery, how long I'd be in the hospital, but that was about it. Sandy's line about teenage boys and mothers' breasts was prophetic and accurate.
That night at dinner, we told our younger sons, Aaron and Henry. I started out by saying, "Listen guys, I'm going to be fine... but I have breast cancer. I need to have surgery but I'm going to be OK. This is a very different kind of cancer from Papa's, it is curable, and we will cure it." We also reminded them about my spinal-cord surgery, and assured them this would be a much easier, less complicated kind of surgery.
Aaron acted similarly to Jonah - fairly stoic, just absorbing the news quietly and without too much outward emotion. He simply nodded as he listened to the (bare-bones) facts about my situation.
Henry, my youngest (age 13), not surprisingly fell apart. He jumped up from the dinner table and into my arms, crying. Until this point, I'd been able to be strong "for the boys" - but this little guy, my baby, melted my heart and my own tears fell with his. I held him and assured him, "I'll be fine, I promise."
I meant it. I will be fine, eventually. That's really all the boys needed to hear - and I have no doubt they're subconsciously grateful we spared them any unnecessary details about, um, you know.