Explaining breast cancer to a young child can be difficult. Often, they have questions we would never imagine. This cancer survivor shares her story in hopes that more conversations with children will ensue.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
On a recent trip to Texas to visit my grandchildren, I was surprised by the inquisitive heart of my oldest granddaughter, Kaitlyn. Throughout my stay, she was always asking questions. My little sidekick wanted to learn how to prepare meals, how to wash clothes and a myriad of other household chores. She felt she needed to learn these important tasks since her mother was in the hospital taking care of her new baby brother. Along with wanting to learn how to do menial tasks, Kaitlyn had many other questions.
One day, as I was working on folding a humongous pile of laundry, Kaitlyn slipped quietly into the room. She stood beside me for the longest time before speaking. As she moved from my side, she stood directly in front of me and never said a word. I watched waiting for her to share what was on her mind. As I watched, I noticed she was staring at my chest. I wasn't wearing my prostheses that day so I was flat as a board. I assumed she was wondering why her "Gigi" didn't have breasts like her mommy did.
A few minutes later, Kaitlyn broke her silence. She looked up at me with her big, brown eyes and said in the softest voice, "Gigi, Mommy said breast cancer took your boobs away." I was shocked as I processed what my 9-year-old granddaughter had just said. "That's right, Kaitlyn," I said. I waited for the question I knew was coming but wasn't prepared for what she said next. Kaitlyn asked, "Gigi, will your boobs ever grow back?"
Kaitlyn had just started to develop. In her pre-pubescent state, she'd become very aware of her physical body. My daughter had been very candid with her about the changes she could expect as she began to grow up, but I had no idea she'd also discussed my cancer situation with her. My sweet little granddaughter stood there patiently waiting for me to answer her question. I took a few minutes before responding. I wasn't sure how much information I should share with her and I certainly didn't want to scare her. When I thought I had the proper response, I took her little face in my hands, tipped her chin up, and began speaking.
"Kaitlyn," I said, "my breasts will never grow back. Cancer is a very nasty disease and sometimes, it makes people very sick. It does things to their bodies that they can't control. Sometimes, we can lose body parts because of the disease but it's OK. When cancer comes into someone's life, they sometimes have to make the choice to lose a body part so they can continue to live. I chose to lose my breasts so I could live. Aren't you glad your Gigi is still here with you? Even though I don't have my breasts any more, I'm still your Gigi. Nothing has really changed except that my body looks a little different now."
I felt that was a good place to stop. I waited for her to think about what I'd said and braced in case more questions were coming.
Kaitlyn didn't say a word for a few minutes and then she looked up at me, smiled, and said, "OK!" With that, she skipped out of the room and went back to playing with her siblings.
Whew! I was thankful she hadn't asked anything more. Children are very curious, and I've always found it's best to listen first and then respond to their questions. When they ask a question, they don't need a lot of detail. They usually only want to know exactly what they ask. I was thankful I took time to let Kaitlyn take the lead with her questions. Although I hadn't expected to have that conversation with her, I was glad we were able to talk openly and honestly.
When I told my daughter about the conversation, she laughed. She wasn't surprised that Kaitlyn had come to me with questions. My daughter explained that when I was first diagnosed, she wanted the children to understand that I was very sick. She had taken time to talk to each one of them individually and explained breast cancer on their specific age level. The older children were given more details while the younger ones were only told their Gigi was very sick and they needed to pray for her.
As my granddaughter goes through puberty and her little breasts begin to develop, I pray she never has to face the struggles of breast cancer.
If you have a child and cancer had touched your life or someone you know, allow them to ask questions. Don't make the mistake of trying to protect and shield them by not allowing them to be inquisitive. If you take time to answer in a way that is appropriate for their specific age and understanding, you'll probably have the same type experience I had with Kaitlyn. You'll more than likely get a quick "OK" and the child will resume playing.
Someone once said, "Curious minds want to know." That statement is true among children and adults. Cancer doesn't have to be a great mystery. And yes, there are many things even adults don't understand about cancer, but if we try to understand one small bit at a time, it sure makes things a whole lot easier.
I had to re-think what Kaitlyn asked. "Gigi, will your boobs ever grow back?" Hmmm. I'd never thought about that before. What a nice concept! Wouldn't it be wonderful if, after having had breast cancer surgery, we could grow a whole new set of breasts? I think it would be quite lovely to have a brand new, perfectly perky set of youthful breasts upon my chest. How about you? Don't you think that'd be nice?
Out of the mouths of babes....you never know what they're going to ask!