COURTESY OF JAKE ERACA
Let’s be blunt: Mom wasn’t feeling well. Sitting us down on the couch, I will never forget those fateful words —“I have cancer.” My initial reaction was shock, followed by a veritable tidal wave of questions. “What kind? Where is it? How bad is it? Do you have a tumor? Are you feeling okay? Are you gonna die? Do I get to miss school? Are you going to lose your hair?”
I was nine years old, the oldest of four, with my three younger sisters sitting next to me on the couch. Jillian, just a year younger than me, followed suit with my questions; Mallory, age seven, started crying; and little Ava, age five, simply didn’t know what cancer was. In the ensuing weeks, we would all become very knowledgeable of the disease and what it could do to the human body as we watched my mother suffer from the stress and burden of treatment.
She told us she had been diagnosed with Stage 1 thyroid cancer that day, having a papillary tumor just under a centimeter splat in the center of her neck. She also told us she had surgery scheduled for May 12, just a few days later. The surgery would leave her exhausted and scarred — specifically with a large slit on her neck. A day into her recovery at home, my mom found out she had been let go from her job, our health insurance would run out by the end of August and that the radioactive treatment she required was delayed. I did more growing that summer than I had for the rest of my adolescence.
At the last minute, in the second week of August, just two weeks before my mother’s health insurance ran out and her medical bills grew exponentially, Mom got scheduled for her iodine treatment. In a small, lead-lined room, my mother became radioactive. She had to sit in the back seat of our minivan as our father drove her home. As the isotope purged her system of remaining cancerous cells, she was not allowed near small children or animals, nor could she travel at risk of setting off a Geiger counter.
Mom quarantined in the neighbor’s pool house, our only contact being phone calls and waving to her from the backyard. After 10 days, I came home from summer camp to cars in the driveway. When I opened the door to the house, my mom was kneeling down to hug me, and I remember diving into her embrace, happy that Mom was OK again.
Although the changes affected my family, knowing Mom’s schedule, bringing her black coffee and burnt toast in the mornings before camp, and being amazed at the gory scar she now had on her neck brought me into the struggle with her. I felt closer to my mom and had the safety net of a stable parent preserved. During her quarantine, we kept up over the phone and she would detail how her scar was healing and the phenomenon of having to flush the toilet three times to ensure the iodine was not allowed to settle. She would describe her pain as a screwdriver, pushing deep into her ear.
At the end of the whole ordeal, I still don’t know whether Mom was strong for us or whether we were strong for Mom.
Morbid as that may sound, we empathized with her and always kept a positive mentality. At the end of the whole ordeal, I still don’t know whether Mom was strong for us or whether we were strong for Mom.
My experience with my mother’s cancer was driven by having a working knowledge of what was going on with her and how we were going to handle it as a family. Even my 5-year-old sister Ava, who could barely pronounce the word “thyroid” (pronounced “theeroid”) came to understand my mom’s disease; this knowledge helped us process our emotions and made the process of healing that much easier. Knowing when Mom met with her doctors, what medicines she needed and how the disease could affect her helped preserve the routine we had established. It felt like I could help, and in my own small way, I did.
Upon asking my mother recently about her choice to be open about her cancer, she recounts reading books and contacting the American Cancer Society about how to tell children about cancer. The American Cancer Society advises keeping children in the loop, which helps maintain the routine that children so often need to thrive.
As in all cases, knowledge is power, and children are capable of more than meets the eye, especially when it comes to understanding seemingly complex concepts.
My mother also drew on her professional experience as a teacher and her studies toward a doctorate in education. Although it was still scary, and we had our rough patches, my mom’s cancer became an obstacle that we tackled together, and it made us appreciate our time with her that summer all the more.
Delaying crucial information such as a cancer diagnosis can only harm a child’s psyche and cause more pain than needed. I can only imagine the horror I would have felt to have seen my mom come home post-op, bandaged and hurting from surgery, and having no idea what was going on. A slit on a mother’s throat is a jarring image, even for adults. In fact, such a sight is classified as potentially traumatizing by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Long-term impacts of such trauma can lead to learning problems, increased contact with child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and even health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
Children don’t need coddling and lies — they need honesty and love.
As a 9-year-old, knowing what Mom had been through and the medical process and reasoning behind it helped me appreciate the surgery and how it saved my mom’s life instead of having a jarring possibly traumatic reaction to my mom’s post-op condition.
As someone who has endured this scenario, I can say to not sugarcoat issues like this. A parent is a lighthouse to a child — there to guide them through the storm of life — but they are also a shelter. Children have a right to know when abrupt, painful change may affect them. Preparing them and arming them with the knowledge to handle such traumas as a serious medical diagnosis or injury can turn a terrible experience into a bonding one.
Children don’t need coddling and lies — they need honesty and love. Equip them with the tools to succeed and process healthily instead of dumping change on them under the guise of protection. The end result will be a child who can empathize and embrace change instead of shying away from it.
This story was originally published on The Observer on September 22, 2021.