Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

How do I tell my young son I have breast cancer?

By Lia Romeo Special to the Washington Post

“Why are you getting so many phone calls?” my 4-year-old son asked me. It was a bright, sunny December afternoon, and we were visiting my parents in Colorado. I was getting a lot of phone calls. And I was not ready to have this conversation.

Then again, I hadn’t been ready for most of what came with parenthood, starting with the February morning when my son barreled his way into the world almost five years before.

He was born in the bathroom of my tiny apartment, because I went from thinking I was in early labor to being about to have a baby in less than 30 minutes, and we didn’t have time to get to the hospital.

I wasn’t ready for breastfeeding, for constant plugged ducts, for months of thrush. I wasn’t ready for the pandemic, for pulling my 1-year-old out of day care and trying to juggle work and child care for months and months and months until we were ready to send him back.

“Well,” I told him, “some of them are from people calling about the house, because we need to do some work on the roof.” I took a deep breath. “And some of them are from doctors.”

I waited to see if he would ask anything else. He did: “Why are you getting phone calls from doctors?”

I was 42 and had been diagnosed with breast cancer four days before. I had tried not to talk a lot about it while my son was around, but he’s a listener. I had been spending hours reading about breast cancer – stages, tumor markers, nuclear grade – but I hadn’t read anything about how to talk about it with children.

I was always a dedicated student. I like having experts tell me how to do things. I follow child psychologists on Instagram, and I had purchased courses on sleep training, potty training, how to teach your child to read. Probably there was a course for how to tell your child you have cancer, but I hadn’t found it in time. I would have to rely on my maternal instincts, which were not something I trusted.

I hadn’t even been sure I wanted kids. I love my son fiercely, but it took me a while to adjust.

Having a baby, and then a toddler, and then a preschooler felt like drinking out of the proverbial fire hose. It was rare that I figured out how to meet his needs, and as soon as I did, he needed something else. And he needed it desperately, and he was going to scream until he got it. He wanted more … and more … and more. The days often felt nearly endless. All I could do was stay calm and try to do the best I could.

Which turned out to be good preparation for being diagnosed with a serious illness. Finding out you have breast cancer makes it almost impossible to plan. Want to schedule something in April? You might be doing chemo in April. You might be doing radiation in April. You might be suffering side effects from one of the drugs they give you to help keep the cancer from coming back. You don’t get the full treatment plan until after you get the pathology from surgery, and scheduling surgery can take months.

And unlike some cancers, rates of recurrence remain high for many years afterward. Want to live long enough to find out what your son’s going to be when he grows up? Well, maybe. But if you get diagnosed when he’s 4, and you’re 42 … maybe not.

Right now, he says he plans to be a lawyer. And someone who rides on riding lawn mowers. And a checkout clerk at the grocery store. In all his spare time around those three jobs, he’s going to teach kids to do magic.

I love hearing his plans. I want to believe that nothing will make them impossible. He is so bright and funny and silly and full of life that it’s almost possible to believe that.

That afternoon in December when he asked me the question, “Why are you getting phone calls from doctors?” I answered the best I could. I told him I had a sickness called cancer, and I would have to have surgery, and then I would have to take some medicine. I told him I thought it was going to be OK (though I wasn’t sure whether I actually thought that). I told him I didn’t know everything yet, but I would tell him more when I knew more.

He thought about this for a minute. “Tell me a little bit more every day,” he said. I told him I would.

I first wrote this essay in January, shortly after my diagnosis. Since then, I’ve lost both my breasts and watched my son turn 5. I’ve told him about my surgery and about my breast reconstruction. I’ve told him I won’t need chemo or radiation, but I’ll need to take years of special (hormone-blocking) drugs. He has been curious about it all, and he hasn’t seemed frightened. Mostly, he has been the same boisterous, silly kid he has always been.

As for me, I feel different – in some ways that are obvious (the scars on my chest), and other ways I suspect it will take me years to fully define. I watch my son doing a dinosaur puzzle, brows furrowed in concentration, fine hair sticking straight up from his perfectly round head. Parenting is still hard, and the days still occasionally feel nearly endless – but, mostly, they feel as if they are passing so quickly. I want more. And more. And more.

Lia Romeo is a playwright and novelist. Her new play “STILL,” starring Jayne Atkinson and Tim Daly, is running off-Broadway.