Mark, Heather, Marco and Max Wright after the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in Charlotte, North Carolina, last October
Heather Keets Wright didn’t spend 2012 the way she thought she would. One night last January she was watching TV with her husband and her hand brushed against something unusual.
“I felt a tumor on my left side under my arm, kind of under my armpit,” the Gastonia, North Carolina, resident says. “It just so happened I was laying that way and had my hand there. I wasn’t doing a self-exam; I wouldn’t have gone back that far if I’d been doing a self-exam. It wouldn’t even have been seen on a mammogram. It felt different. I said, ‘This is weird; this is not right.’”
Within two days Keets Wright had an ultrasound, a biopsy and a diagnosis: breast cancer. “I was in meetings all that day,” she says. “I noticed they’d called three times, so that’s when I knew.”
She and her husband, Mark, decided not to tell their three children (19-year-old Danielle; Max, 11; and Marco, 8) right away. There were oodles of tests and a learning curve, and the couple wanted to wait until they had all the information.
“When I knew I was having my surgery, that’s when I sat the kids down,” Keets Wright says. “Mark told Danielle. I knew I’d be hysterical. She’s away at school, and I didn’t want to upset her at school.”
“I told Max. I purposely never used the words ‘breast cancer.’ Max is familiar with cancer from science class. But more importantly, he has a classmate whose father has leukemia, and he has been physically affected. He’s in wheelchair and has a breathing tube. I didn’t want Max to associate his classmate’s dad’s cancer with my cancer,” she explains. “I told him I’d gone for my annual exam and they found a tumor on the left side of my boob. He said he knew what a tumor was. I told him it was small—the size of a plain M&M. He said, ‘Mom, that’s exactly what happened to the tallest man in the world. He had a tumor on the gland in your brain that makes you grow.’ It was so sweet, ’cause that’s how he processed it.”
How Do You Talk to Your Child About Cancer?
They didn’t realize it at the time, but with her diagnosis, Heather and Mark joined a large group. One in four people with cancer in this country has a child. And though talking to your children about a cancer diagnosis might be difficult, the experts say it’s important to give them information about your disease.
Children of parents with cancer may have higher rates of anxiety, especially if they are not well informed, says Martha Aschenbrenner of the Children’s Cancer Hospital at M.D. Anderson in Houston. Children sense when something is amiss within their family, and they may assume a parent’s illness is somehow their fault.
Aschenbrenner recommends parents respond to these fears with honest and the three Cs: “It’s called cancer; it’s not catching; and it’s not caused by anything they did or didn’t do.”
Additionally, how children will react depends on their age. A younger child may only repeat what a parent said, but children 6 to 11 might need specific details. Teens are more likely to withdraw.
Keets Wright took her cues from her children’s personalities. During her initial conversation with Max, she only discussed her diagnosis and told him she was going to have surgery. “I didn’t tell him about chemo at that time because I knew he couldn’t process that, too,” she says. “Marco was only 7 [at the time], so we just told him Mommy had to go into hospital for surgery.”
Danielle, the oldest, dealt with the news in her own way. “She said when Daddy first told her she broke down and cried,” Keets Wright says. “Then she prayed about it and felt better instantly. We’ve since talked about making sure she does self-exams. We’ve talked a lot about what it felt like and how I found it.”
Keep It Simple
Aschenbrenner says don’t be too hard on yourself during this time. Everybody in the family will be learning. “Give yourself a break, and keep communication open,” she says.
It’s what Keets Wright did, in an effort to maintain as much normalcy as possible. After recovering from surgery (she had a double mastectomy), her sons thought she was back to normal. “Then I told them about chemo and that I might be a little bit more tired and that I might lose my hair. They were, like, ‘What? That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’ Then Max said, ‘It’ll grow back.’ I don’t know how he knew that. He said it would be cool if it came back green.
“Danielle went into mother mode. She got out of school [for summer] just as I was having my first treatment in May. She grocery shopped, she cleaned the house, she went with me for shots, she drove. She took care of her brothers. It was eye opening for me cause you raise kids, but you think, ‘Are they going to be able to take care of me when I’m old?’ She did a good job.”
The Real Silver Lining
Though Keets Wright lost her hair during the ordeal, she kept her sanity and her sense of humor, maintaining a very funny online journal chronicling her road to recovery.
“It sucked, but I didn’t get that bad a diagnosis,” she says now. “It’s the kind you want to hear if you have breast cancer. It was caught early, it was small and I had choices in terms of treatment. Some women don’t have that. It was hard. Mark had to do double duty, but in the end the kids were just very comfortable. The blessing for me is that it has been as normal as it could possibly be. I don’t feel like it interrupted our lives much at all.”
Tips for Talking to Your Children About Cancer