Lessons Learned from First Graders


My son was visibly proud to show me off to his class that day, and I was secretly proud to send his classmates home to talk about poop at the dinner table.

After reading one of his favorite books to my son's first grade class, his teacher asked if he would like to tell everyone about me. It was his moment as "Star of the Week," and as my number one fan, he beamed with excitement and began to bounce in his chair.

"This is my mom! I love to cuddle with her while we watch documentaries, and she has colon cancer!"

After his prideful and accurate description, a room full of 7-year-old hands shot up, and I watched as his teacher buried her face in her hands. She knew he had opened the lid on a jar that probably couldn't be closed in time for them to line up for lunch.

"Where is your colon?"

"Is that where you make poop?"

"Do you have poop cancer?"

"My dog has cancer!"

"Does poop cause cancer?"

I was secretly hoping he wouldn't answer them by describing the countless times he had to wait inside a public restroom while one of the many side effects of chemo hit me at a most inconvenient moment. Or the many times I almost knocked him over as I made a too-close-to-call sprint for the nearest toilet. Having one of the least glamorous cancers coupled with some gut-destroying chemo can leave a kid with many colorful memories in bathrooms we'd rather avoid.

Between the nature of my cancer, and my job working in the the field of colorectal cancer awareness and prevention, bathroom habits aren't sacred in our house. And I think that's a good thing. I have passed on to my children the willingness and ease with which we talk about our bodies. They understand that their bodies will often tell them when something isn't right, and they should never hesitate to ignore it - even if it might be a little embarrassing. As the mother of boys, I can assure you this has led me to inspect many bits and parts I hope to never see again.

As I sat in that room of first graders, I was pleased to see them all so eager to talk about poop, and I wished their ease and comfort with the subject wouldn't fade. I know as they get older stigma and shame will set in and may make them prone to remain mum over topics deemed taboo. But I see the deadly impact this stigma and shame can have, and I cross paths with many cancer patients who put off going to the doctor because they were embarrassed of something that just wasn't right below the belt.

I know people who won't get a screening colonoscopy because they think it will be embarrassing to have someone exploring their backside, men who won't get their annual physical because they don't want someone handling their boy bits and sticking fingers were they normally might not go, and women who avoid a visit to the gynecologist because they believe there's something embarrassing about the parts with which they were born. I want to remind the world that the very professionals looking at your most private parts happen to be looking at private parts all day long. These are doctors that chose their specialty, are in the business of your most hidden bits, and couldn't pick them out of a line up by the time you walk out of the exam room.

Many cancers present with symptoms that most of us would rather not talk about over dinner. As a society we need to return to that classroom rug for circle time in the first grade, raise our hands, and feel comfortable talking about any concerns below (or above) the belt like it was no more innocuous than recess chatter around the swings. The truth is embarrassment can kill you - literally.

My classroom visit ended when the teacher stood up with authority and told the kids question time was over and they needed to line up at the door. "By the way," I told her as I walked passed the noisy lineup at the door, "I have cancer in case you didn't know." She nodded and said that explained why my first grader who struggled to read knew more than she did about the large intestine. I apologized for the excitement I may have brought to the class that morning, yet secretly hoped those curious little souls would go home and happily talk about poop cancer to their parents over dinner.

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