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What This Cancer Mom Learned From Her Kids

By on May 1st, 2014 Categories: Day-to-Day Matters

The day in May 2006 when our older daughter turned nine, my husband rather wistfully commented, “That’s it, half of her life with us is now over. Before we know it, she’ll be off to college.” I remember laughing and thinking this was a rather melancholy way to think about the kids. We were so in the thick of our parenting life, and with a younger daughter age 7, I couldn’t imagine anything else consuming our lives in the same way. College was an awful long way off.

Of course no parent wants to think about a time when they will be parted from their kids (as inevitable as that may be), but it is the first thing that comes to mind when you are diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember the day vividly, December 9, 2010, a when my doctor called to confirm that the thing they saw in my breast during a routine mammogram was, in fact, breast cancer. That specific moment is probably the darkest moment of all; you actually have no real information about the type of breast cancer you have, no feel for how bad it is, nor for your prognosis. Suffice it to say, in your head, at least, you are staring mortality in the face. As a mother, it was probably the most devastating thing to think about. As much as my death would devastate my husband, my father, my siblings, how could my girls possibly handle it?

Fortunately I had excellent treatment and my prognosis continues to be good, and I’m not sure that the thought of coping without their mother ever occurred to them. But they did have to cope with a mother who underwent breast cancer treatment. As much as I had to explain things to them, I learned a lot from them too. So on this Mother’s Day, a salute to my kids and what they taught me.

  • Honesty is the best policy. Explaining treatment details to them at a level appropriate for their understanding is key. In 8th and 6th grades, my girls were familiar with the word cancer and even knew people in our own circle who had been diagnosed. While they may not have known what a tumor was, they knew that I was sick and that the treatment I was enduring would impact our family for a while.
  • Let them figure out how they want to share with their social group. We alerted their teachers but let the kids handle what they wanted to share with their friends. All I asked was if their friends visited, would they be alarmed by my bald head and did it need explaining? It didn’t.
  • The best beauty tip I learned from them was when they made it clear they were fine with me going out in the world bald. “Whatever makes you feel good, mom, it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.”
  • Kids are remarkably resilient and adults forget that. I felt no need to be stoic in front of my children every moment of my treatment. They could see that I was suffering and they also knew that sometimes they had the ability to help me get through it. Every day when my older daughter came home from school she came upstairs immediately to ask if I needed anything. A small, selfless gesture that helped me tremendously.
  • The self-absorption of teenagers is genetically wired and not much changes that. On the days that they were being self-centered teens, I knew that all was right with the world, they had not been scarred by what I was going through and their development was moving apace.

My girls are now poised young women, about to turn 17 and 15. I hope that one day they will understand that during that period I was “cancer mom,” they were extraordinary young kids dealing with cancer. And yes, I am now a year away from my first-born going to college. The good news is, I’m going to be around to drop her off.

Madhulika Sikka is author of A Breast Cancer Alphabet (Crown 2014). Sikka is executive editor for NPR News and a veteran broadcast journalist, previously at ABC News’s Nightline with Ted Koppel, CBS News in Tokyo, and NBC in London. She has won every major broadcast news award, including four Emmys, an Edward R. Murrow Award, two Dupont Awards, a Peabody, and awards from the National Association of Black Journalists and the South Asian Journalists Association. For more information, visit madhulikasikka.com.

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