How is Colleen dealing with this?

Friends keep asking how Colleen is dealing with all of the drama in our lives right now. So, I thought a post devoted to the subject might be in order.

Colleen is 5. And, if you don’t know her, let me tell you she is brilliant. She blends in pretty well with regular kids — nose-picking, skirt over her head, whining and all that. But she is scary-smart. She started reading sometime last summer (at the age of 4), but we didn’t figure it out for months. When we finally figured it out, I think she was already beyond a first grade level. I’m fairly convinced she stays up late at night and works toward global domination in a secret factory underneath her twin bed.

When the big cancer news came along, we knew we’d tell her right up front, just like we do with all important facts. Ok, we don’t exactly lay out the gory details, but we are pretty straightforward with information for a 5-year-old. We have to be. She’d figure us out if we weren’t and blame us for years to come. I just imagine I wouldn’t get invited to her rehearsal dinner because she’ll be holding a grudge 20 years later because her lousy mother didn’t show her the mammogram results.

Troy and I are pretty in sync with how we deal with big news with her. There was no reason to sit down and have a “big talk,” so we both just sort of individually shared the news with her in the few days after we learned it ourselves. I like that we do it this way. We get to share things in our own words. Colleen relates to each of us differently, so that gives her two opportunities to learn the information in a different way, ask questions in her own way, get comfort from mom and dad.

Colleen knew I was not well after the biopsy. I was in pain and had to tell her to be careful about jumping on me and rough-housing. I mentioned I had something like a blood test and it hurt. (She had a blood test a few months ago and could relate.) A few days later, she asked me if it still hurt. I told her it did and that I had a very large bruise. I wanted her to see it because I didn’t want her to accidentally come across me getting out of the shower or getting dressed and be startled. (The bruise was horrifying. I still had skin discoloration from it six weeks later.) She said she did, so I showed her. She didn’t seem alarmed (of course, I was playing the cool “thank you for that slimy earthworm” mom routine). She patted the bruise very gently with her hand and told me that she wanted me to feel better.

I told her that the doctors had found something in my breast that made me sick. I didn’t use the word cancer yet. I was avoiding it because I wasn’t sure if she would relate it to Pawpaw’s cancer (and Pawpaw is dying). I told her I would need surgery and I was going to feel sick for a while. She also has a sense of what surgery is because she is regularly told the story of her heart surgery and she has visited grandparents in the hospital who have had surgery. I didn’t think she was totally grasping the idea, but she did get that I wasn’t well.

Over the ensuing weeks, she seemed untroubled by my problems. She would tell me from time to time that she hoped I would get better. We would talk here and there about more details. The surgery happened and she got to go on vacation with Grandma and Grandpa, so that was actually a huge positive for her! I ordered some kid books for her about breast cancer and we read them together. Once or twice she would ask us to read them to her.

(An aside: good children’s books on breast cancer were HARD to find. I visited and called bookstores and none were in stock. I found a recommended list for her age group online, but only about three or four of them were available through or Barnes & Noble. I ordered the two with happy endings, but I wasn’t really thrilled with them. One has great illustrations, but the story line stinks. The poor dad really takes a beating in the story! And the other is just blah. Good for a technical description for someone her age, but not a great kids book. Both are award-winners! Hard to believe. I have to say I’m really dreaming about writing my kind of children’s book about breast cancer someday in the future!)

She went through a spell after the surgery where was more easily upset, moody and whiny. She was obsessed with the idea of me losing my hair, although mostly in a good way. One morning, she told Troy in a stage whisper (I was right beside them) that it was very important to tell me how beautiful I am all of the time, even if I didn’t have any hair at all.

She does tell me that I am beautiful, although she has declared my last haircut was “like a boy’s.” She’s right, actually. She was very excited to go wig shopping with me. At first, she told Troy he couldn’t come, that it was just for Mommy and Colleen. Then, she decided he could come and say funny things.

She brings us her cancer books often now and asks us to read them to her. Reading to her is more about the experience than reading, since she is fully capable of reading them to herself. So, what she is asking for is time to snuggle, ask questions about something in the books, giggle with mom or dad, and all those other things reading to kids is about.

She came to me a couple of times in tears to say she didn’t want me to lose my hair. I tell her it’s only going to last a while. I explained the medicine (chemo) I’m taking will last through August, which is when she starts kindergarten. So, around the time she goes to school, I might have little hairs growing back.

One day, it seemed to click with her that you lose hair everywhere. She came to me to look up my nose to see if I had nose hairs that I would lose. She told Troy if he had cancer, he would lose the hair on his chest and his bottom! See what we are dealing with?

On the day I shaved my hair, she was very excited. She giggled the whole time and seemed to think the whole thing was hysterical. She now keeps begging me to wear wigs, so sometimes I wear them for short periods just for her. Troy has talked to her a lot about the idea that I want my hair loss to be a private thing, so it’s not really appropriate in public to yell “take off your wig mommy, so people can see you bald!”

Two days ago in the car, she told me again that she wanted me to feel better soon. Then, she asked me when I would feel better. I told her that every time I had chemo, I felt bad for a while. On that day, I was feeling fine. Then, I explained that after the chemo in done in August, I’ll have a surgery and I’ll still be feeling bad for awhile. I told her after that, I should really start to get better and start to feel better all of the time. She asked me some more questions and we had a good talk. She really does seem to grasp a lot of this.

In one of the books, the doctor tells the little boy that the mommy might get cantakerous when she has chemo. Only, the little boy thinks he says “cancer-tankerous.” So, the kids talk about mommy being cancer-tankerous when she loses her temper. After my first two treatments, I really did get cancer-tankerous! (I think that was probably when my ovaries shut down and through some hormones into an imbalance.) And Colleen would go whisper to Troy, “I think mommy is cancer-tankerous now.” It was like they were in a little club: normal folks just trying to survive the cancer-tankerous lady. At dinner the other night, Colleen said, “Mommy, you haven’t been cancer-tankerous much recently.” It is true! She’s a smart girl.

Author: rosie

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