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I Can't Protect Them From My Cancer, But I Can Support Them
June 15, 2016 – Martha Carlson

I Can't Protect Them From My Cancer, But I Can Support Them

It took time to learn that protecting my kids from what I am going through also takes away my ability to support them.
PUBLISHED June 15, 2016
Martha lives in Illinois and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in January 2015. She has a husband and three children, ranging in age from 12 to 18, a dog and a lizard.
One of the most difficult aspects of my experience with cancer has been learning how to handle two opposing needs—the desire to protect the people I love from the truth of what I am living through and the need for support both from them and for them.

This is most powerfully felt when it comes to my children, who are all teenagers. How can I support them when I don’t want to share everything? Is a piece of the truth enough to reassure them? Or is that piece of truth too small, cutting them off from me in ways that prevent any of us from finding the support and strength we need?

I find those questions impossible to neatly answer. As a way to handle the conflicting forces of protecting kids and supporting kids, I’ve developed a short—very short—list of rules to live by.

If they ask, answer honestly and don’t leave out the emotions I am feeling. That gives them a chance to address their own emotions.

I can’t protect them, but I can support them. This holds true in so many circumstances. It’s a wonder it took cancer to make me distill this concept down to nine words. 

That’s it.

This has been brought home to me recently as I went through the period of waiting for results from whole-body scans that promise to reveal whether or not the drugs I am on are still keeping me steady. I start worrying about these scans the minute they show up on my calendar, weeks ahead of the actual event and then for about a week after as I wait to hear the results. I know my kids are aware of rising levels of anxiety.

The really wonderful thing about teenagers, though, is that they are able to handle so much and in ways so different from one another (just like real people, ha!). I continue to try to learn how to share with them in the styles that best fit.

All of my kids rely on the internet, but just one of them focuses on internet searching to get information. And in case you’re wondering, going down the path of “Googling” a specific cancer diagnosis and its prognosis is a surefire way to emotional devastation in the case of metastatic breast cancer. I want this girl to talk to me and ask questions, even if I struggle to beat back the desire to shield her from my own scary emotions. If she can look at me and see that life continues mostly the same—I still get upset about the shoes piled throughout the living room, for example—I feel like that reassures her, despite what she might read online. Honesty is the way to go here, I know it, even though it is hard as hell to look at your 19-year-old daughter and say both “Look at me! You can see I am okay.” and “I am scared about the scans, the IV, the radiation and the future.” But it has to be done because otherwise, when she’s drawn to worry about me, she’ll only have what the internet gives her, and that is not okay.

Facts suit the child who needs to analyze. This kid understands how cancer works on a cellular level and also understands that there’s a lot of variability in how patients respond to treatments. She knows the facts about metastatic disease and asks pointed questions as her understanding increases, like “Will you have chemotherapy the rest of your life?” (I will.) She wants me to be Mom more than anything, I think, and so it’s not a matter of protecting her from information, since she already understands the basics through discussions with her scientist dad and science teachers, but of making sure I find the time and desire to do the things that she associates with me being Mom. Clothes shopping anyone?! If I can share those things with her, I must be doing okay. At least, that’s how it seems to work in her mind. Are there ways to support her without hiding behind a curtain of clothes racks? I try my best to be as direct as I can bear.

For the head-in-the-sand type, hmmm. This one and I are a perfect match. If I could stick my head in the sand and make it all go away, life would be mighty nice. But I can’t, and I know I shouldn’t let him do that all the time, either. I answer any and all questions for him, which is easy because he never has any. Instead, it is up to me to make sure he knows about most of my appointments and what they are. I also have to let him know that sometimes they make me tired, but more often they make me tense, and that neither of those things have anything to do with him or anyone else in the family, even if sometimes they bear the burden.

All of them seem most happy when I remember to give them hugs and find the time to talk one-to-one about anything. We are all experiencing cancer. I try to remind myself of that when I want to deny any fear or sadness. As much as I may want to always put on a happy face for the ones I love, they sometimes gain the most from seeing the face underneath, even if it isn’t always as pretty.
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