Is Cancer a Monster?
Last updated: October 2023
The questions of childhood seem endless. It's a constant carousel of "why," "what," "how," and "when?" Children desire knowledge and believe so strongly in their parents that they must know the answer to every question.
Answering my child's questions about breast cancer
Some questions have quick, easy answers, like descriptions of the water cycle or what the colors of stoplights mean. Then there are questions you hope you answer correctly, the ones where time stands still for a second while all you can think is, "I wasn't prepared for this today; I hope I don't screw this up," while your kiddo looks at you trustingly and expectantly.
Questions like "Why can't they take away the cancer?" or "Is cancer a monster?" neither of which have straightforward answers.
Complicated interactions with others
These questions can happen anywhere and be prompted by anything. It can be as simple as the waitress at a well-known family diner asking me and my daughter, "What are you girls doing today?" while we wait for my partner to finish their oncology appointments.
I would have brushed it off with just a quick, "just out to breakfast," while my daughter, with the sweet honesty of childhood, to whom cancer is a daily part of our life, let her know that "Mommy's at the hospital having scans for cancer. My mommy has only 1 boob!"
Explaining why people pray for us
To my daughter, it was just another Thursday; our waitress was much more upset about it. She braced herself against our table, exclaiming, "You poor thing!" at my daughter, who was confused by this reaction.
This same waitress felt it appropriate to grab my hand as we left and say she'd be praying for us. While I appreciate the sentiment, I don't want to be touched by strangers, which can ruin experiences.
What was supposed to be a fun breakfast with my daughter to take our minds off of everything became a conversation she continues to bring up to this day. "Why do people pray for us?" she often asks.
We've explained it the best we can in a family that isn't religious. To some people, prayer or asking a higher power to help us seems like the only thing they can do. People want to help us because cancer makes some people sad.
Many questions about cancer don't have simple answers
Then, there are the bigger questions. Ones that my daughter sits and chews on before she can spit them out. "Did I do something to make mommy get cancer?"
"Of course not," I reply, "It happens when your cells make bad cells."
She has also asked, "Will I get cancer?" I respond, "I really hope not and don't think so, but that's why it's important to check our body and go to the doctor."
Questions that again break my heart, that my sweet, tender-hearted kiddo has these thoughts and feelings. Answers that are appropriate to her level but also within our family philosophy of never lying and equipping her with the information she is asking for.
As a parent, I never stop learning
I never know what will prompt these more complicated questions. I prepare for them, read what I can about parenting, cancer, and supporting my daughter through this. I read online blogs, work with organizations specializing in this information, and do my best to connect her with other kids going through similar experiences.
It's okay to not have answers, too
There are still moments that raise questions I sometimes don't have answers to. I'm doing my best to learn that it's okay when I don't have the answers and that sometimes all she needs is for someone to sit with her in these fears.
The questions of childhood create an elaborate maze. Some are easy, some complex. Every day, every question is an opportunity for connection and understanding.
For a parent helping a child navigate a parent's metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, questions can be delightfully refreshing, a way to break the tension of a hard day. But they can also be challenging, an unwelcome window for our children to the harsh realities of life.
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