My T-cell lymphoma and acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnoses came towards the end of summer break during my sophomore year of college. While all of my friends were dating, graduating with their degrees and getting married, I was on the eighth floor of MD Anderson putting puzzles together.
Fast forward 17 years and I’ve caught up – I found and married a great guy, I’m a practicing family nurse practitioner, I have two beautiful children and I’m cancer-free.
There are certain things I’ll never forget about my time at MD Anderson. Like how a certain nurse I loved would stop whatever she was doing to come hold my hand while I was getting a bone marrow aspiration. Or the way another would wash my hair with a bedpan and an enema bucket when I couldn’t get out of bed. I can even recall what was on the room service menu at that time. In some ways, though, it’s hard to think that young, 21-year-old me went through all of that. That’s why I was taken off-guard when my kids recently noticed and asked about my cancer scars.
I knew the conversation about my cancer would eventually come, but I never expected it to happen so early. Regardless, my son, who’s 9, and my daughter, who’s 7, have both started asking about certain things, like the radiation tattoo on my neckline or the tiny hole left from the port I had.
There’s a fine line when you’re talking to your kids about cancer. Each child is different, but for mine, being honest and assuring has worked. Here are the two things I’ve reiterated to my children about cancer:
1. My cancer scars are a sign of strength. And struggle.
There was a time in my life where I rarely told anyone I had cancer because the other person’s response was always “I’m sorry.” We all have struggles, and I don’t feel like people owe me an apology because of mine. I’ve chosen to use cancer to make me stronger and more focused on accomplishing my goals. That’s why I want my kids to know that my scars are a sign of my strength.
At the same time, though, I didn’t feel nearly as resilient when those would-be scars were merely fresh wounds. Our neighbor recently shaved his head as a personal choice. When my daughter saw him, she blurted out, “Hey, baldy!” I had to explain to her that her comment might cause a lot of pain for someone going through chemo.
Wounds become scars, but that takes times.
2. We’re ready for whatever’s ahead.
God forbid my cancer should ever reoccur, but if it does, I don’t want my kids to be paralyzed by fear. When I was growing up, people didn’t talk about cancer in a hopeful way or consider it to be a manageable disease. But times have changed, and I want my children to know that we’re ready for whatever comes our direction.
I wish I could say that I don’t take life for granted and that I value every minute because I had cancer. But honestly, I don’t. I’m too busy just living. My kids have homework. Dinner has to be made. Violin and piano lessons need to be attended. But through it all, my scars remind me where I’ve been, and I confidently look forward to what’s ahead.