Goal!! Telling My 10-Year-Old About My Diagnosis

By on July 22nd, 2015 Categories: The Breast Cancer Journey

The stunning victory by the US Women’s Soccer team reminded me of my 11-year-old daughter’s last game of the 2015 spring season. Julie had two assists, contributing to her team’s 6-1 win and ending an otherwise abysmal season (2-5-1) on a high note. The Leprechauns (so named for their bright green jerseys) finally gelled, celebrating their triumph with a Carli Lloyd-inspired group hug.

Julie played in a New York City league that emphasized the sport and not the score (although we parents kept tally). She liked playing goalie the best. She had some dazzling saves (which were met with mammoth maternal fist pumps from the sidelines) while a few shots got past her (which were met with mammoth maternal shoulder shrugs from the sidelines).

At this age the girls maintained a sweetness about them, not yet affected by the sharp edge that middle school inevitably brings. Like the US Women’s Soccer team, the girls wore high, hair-swinging ponytails but decorated with colorful ribbons and flowered barrettes. Nail polish was bright, glittery and discussed weekly. Gymnastics even made its way onto the field, which was met with a kindhearted but stern warning from the referee, “Ladies, no cartwheels on the field, please.”

Soccer was our mother-daughter thing. So it was no surprise that soccer came up when I told Julie that I had breast cancer.

After a beautiful, early 2013 September game, Julie and I were sitting at the kitchen table munching on apple slices. I took a deep breath (hold it together, Lisa) and casually mentioned that her grandparents were coming to visit in a few days. This got her attention; they usually came for Thanksgiving, just a few months away. I told her I was having surgery on Thursday, would be home that night and would be just fine. The surgeon needed to remove a few spots that showed up on an X-ray (too complicated to explain what a mammogram, sonogram and MRI were). There was a name to what I had; it was called breast cancer. (There, I said it, and I didn’t vaporize.)

If she knew what cancer was she didn’t show it.

I asked her if she had any questions. She thought about this for a few seconds while chewing and then asked:

“Does it hurt?”

How to answer this? Truthfully, with a “nope, no pain at all.” For a life-threatening disease I felt fine, but the emotional pain was immeasurable. For now that would remain unspeakable. She seemed satisfied with this answer.

“Do you have to getta shot?” she asked, reaching for another apple slice.

If my daughter’s biggest fear in life was needles then I was happy. This wasn’t fear at all. For almost a year Julie got a daily shot of synthetic growth hormones to produce the ones her body wouldn’t. 300 shots later she was our resident pro and record holder. Would I be as tough as her?

I told her that I wouldn’t come close to her heroic number but may need to go to the hospital for some powerful drugs called chemo.

“Oh, yeah,” I mumbled while gulping down water to push my heart out of my throat, “my hair will fall out, too.” I hope she didn’t hear me.

She heard me.

Whaaaat? You mean you’ll just be standing there and then all of a sudden your hair pops out of your head?”

10-year-olds can be so literal.

Well, not exactly, but yeah, kind of. (In fact, on day 15, my hair fell out. Thousands of strands in the shower and on bathroom floor, exactly like the nurse said.)

The image of my standing in the kitchen making dinner and then my hair suddenly popping out of my cranium was the funniest thing she had ever heard. She cracked up. So I did, too. I told her I would wear a wig and she could borrow it for Halloween (she declined on the latter, but together we named her Delilah).

Now it was my turn to ask a question. “Do you remember our pinkie-swear? Our promise that we will always take care of each other?” She nodded. I told her I would need extra help in the coming months.

Julie would deliver on her promise. Washed my hair when I couldn’t lift my arms post-surgery, reminded her brother to wash his hands post-bathroom, made me laugh when I wanted to cry post-pathology report. World Cup guardian of my low immune system and my low spirits.

But her next question caught me off guard.

“Is it contagious?”

I cringed. Shoulda seen this one coming. Nearly all of 4th grade was spent learning how to cough into one’s elbow.

“No, it’s not like the flu,” I replied. “There are no germy cells floating around in the air.” (Only floating around in my body.) There was no family history of breast cancer, until me. Julie would spend her adult life now checking the box “yes.” But I wasn’t about to go there today. When you’re 10 life isn’t about science and data; it’s about cartwheels, exclamation points and double-fudge cupcakes with Aunt Rachelle. I throttled back. Time to wrap up this mother-daughter convo.

Did she have any other questions?

Just one. “Can you still take me to soccer?”

My heart leapt back into my throat. I blinked away the tears, grateful my daughter had boiled down breast cancer to the normal, the routine, the Sunday soccer game. Oh my darling Julie, of course I will still take you to soccer. And if I can’t make a game I will be there in spirit, sending you mammoth maternal fist pumps from the sidelines.

Lisa Goldstein began writing when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013. She describes her writing as a post-traumatic growth experience and recently published essays on Women You Should Know and in the 2015 Visible Ink Anthology. In her spare time she is a veteran analyst on Wall Street. She lives with her husband and two terrific kids in New York City.

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