Tuesday afternoon I got a call from the school nurse that my older daughter was in her office complaining of a stomach ache. It was right before my younger child was about to be dropped at home by the school bus, so I couldn’t leave home and come to the school. Had to tell the older child to sit tight and take her regular bus home. She was a good sport. In the English spirit she kept a stiff upper lip and made it home mostly in one piece.

I gave her a mild dinner and by the end of the night she was doing fine and happily went off to school the next morning. The Force is strong with that child.

Yesterday morning I was scrambling to get ready for a breakfast to benefit breast cancer in Clapham (southwest London) where it is très français, hosted by my beautiful and effervescent new French friend and fellow survivor. The phone rang. It was the school nurse again.

This time it was the younger child, who had thrown up on the school steps after the bus ride to school. She tends to get motion sickness from time to time (like the day after we arrived in London last summer when I had the swell idea to take the kids on the double-decker Original London bus tour, during which Charlotte threw up right on me at point-blank range and when asked why she didn’t warn me, responded: “the throw-up was the warning”). Anyhow, I didn’t think much of it, particularly since Charlotte told the nurse she felt fine après puke and wanted to stay at school.

She made it through school all right but of course she was not fine. Duh. She had the same 24-hour tummy virus her sister had had the day before. At Charlotte’s swimming lesson, she started complaining of tummy pain and then had to be carried half way home (thank God my law school roommates are in town visiting and had come to the lesson, since I could not have carried Charlotte and my purse and the backpack with swimming gear all at once).

Once we were home, my friend bathed the child to help spare my ailing hands (dry and hyper-pigmented with two very slow-healing boo-boos — a mess). These people flew all the way to London for a few days without their four kids and they voluntarily came to a children’s swimming lesson and then had to carry and bathe a 45-pound kid (that’s three stones and a pebble). Or maybe they just really wanted to see me bald in person.

After the bath, Charlotte put herself to bed at 6:00 pm — when I went to check on her and offer her some plain pasta for dinner, she was already fast asleep. I thought maybe I hadn’t heard the last of her but I went downstairs to hang out with my friends and get Isabel some dinner. Charlotte didn’t make a peep during the entire visit. “Think she’ll go twelve hours?” My friend asked. “Maybe,” I said.

The minute they left the house, of course, my husband, who had come home early to hang out, heard crying and raced upstairs. Sure enough, Charlotte had woken up and vomited all over her bed. I mean all over. It was on her pyjamas, pillow case and pillow, stuffed animals, duvet cover, bottom sheet, side of the bed and rug. And it was some nasty smelling vomit, too. Really acidic. The worst, I do believe, I have ever smelled. Thank goodness parents are immune to their own kids’ vomit.

We started the tedious process of removing all offending items from the room and balling them up in preparation for washing. Bill carried the bulging wad of ickiness downstairs while I somewhat creatively remade the bed, throwing in a waterproof zip-up pillow case, which was leftover from being a maternity patient, on the fresh pillow for good measure.

When this was finished and Charlotte was safely tucked away it occurred to me that I didn’t mind at all. I didn’t mind cleaning up the throw-up. When you are a parent you don’t really mind these things. You clean up seemingly infinite poop and pee and puke. I might have whistled as I worked had it not been getting late.

I’ll tell you why.

Because I was well enough to help her myself. I wasn’t lying in bed downstairs while all of this went down. I was right there on the front lines, wiping her face, picking up chunks and opening the window to air the room.

Please understand: I know that I need help. I needed help yesterday at swimming when I couldn’t carry Charlotte and was trying to save my hands by not doing a bath. I need help all the time and have learned to ask for it when needed and accept it when offered. And I am not a person used to getting a great deal of help — or at least I wasn’t until now. You become accustomed to it because you have no choice.

There was just something about taking care of my child, changing her bed and making her clean and comfortable and safe that made me think: Boy am I fortunate to have been able to clean up that puke. I reflected on all the times we did it in the middle of the night when she was a little baby and a toddler. Padding into her room together to assess the damage and then stripping the crib and starting midnight laundry.

Those aren’t bad memories. They are priceless. They are killer.

And they made me think of all the moms and dads who are ill who are not able to care for their own children. And how hard that is.

I am sending them all my love right now. Won’t you join me?

Why Sometimes I Let Myself Go There

For some reason whenever I ride the tube in London I get introspective. Especially if I am alone, quietly observing the other passengers as the cars clickety-clack along. There is something about sitting there without speaking that makes me wonder what other people are thinking.

Today I needed to take my younger daughter to a birthday party in Northwest London and, being at a friend’s house about an hour away in Southwest London, we had quite a journey ahead of us. For about the first nine stops there were no seats and Charlotte and I stood side by side, holding hands. When I am standing I feel more powerful and imposing, because I am relatively tall. I don’t wonder so much what anyone around me might be thinking. But when I sit down and shrink to everyone else’s size, I start to feel a little vulnerable.

When we made our switch there was one seat available and I told Charlotte to take it. The man next to her looked at me and offered me his seat. I happily accepted and thanked him. I wasn’t sure if he gave it up so that I could sit next to my young child, or because he knew I was a cancer patient.

I started to think about how I perceive myself versus how others perceive me. Do I look like a cancer patient even when I don’t feel like one? And how about when I do? When I am tired and have dark circles under my eyes do people notice? Do I make them feel sad? Or disgusted? Today, did that man look at the five-year-old child by my side and pity her? Did he wonder if she would have a mother in a year or two? Did he think that it was unfair for such a young child to have a mother like me?

These thoughts violated my mind in rapid succession as the train hurtled toward Bond Street, where we would get off and meet my husband. He had finished work for the day and had agreed to take Charlotte the rest of the way to the party, shortening my journey and enabling him to spend some time with her.

We found him on the platform. I handed her off and gave him a quick peck. Then the next train came and they were gone. I started toward the exit (“way out” we call it here). I paused. My hand felt conspicuously empty. I looked at it. Reminded myself that I was no longer holding Charlotte’s hand, that I had relinquished her and the bag containing the birthday present, card and directions to the party to Bill. She was safe. She was okay.

I walked up the short flight of stairs and rode the long escalator up. Stopped in an inexpensive store to study a collection of clip-on flowers for my head scarves. I bought three. Felt a little bit better. Then I emerged from Bond Street Station and looked up Oxford Street. A light drizzle spattered my parka, which I had hoped by now would be stored until next winter. I looked toward Selfridges department store, looming across the street with its grand facade and its flags. Glitzy retail beckoning. But I didn’t want it. Not today.

I crossed the street. H&M was right there. More my speed. Cheap. Almost disposable. I walked in and was assaulted by pop music, whatever sweet perfume they were pushing and brightly coloured sequined tops and tropical-print bikinis. I found the accessories and selected more flowers. I had now amassed a bouquet, but wasn’t ready to leave.

I surveyed the store and picked up an inappropriately short colour-blocked mini skirt and a gauzy leaf-print beach cover-up. There was a long line at the fitting room. I bought everything without trying on. Screw it.

Pure unadulterated retail therapy. Cheap retail. Maybe the best kind and the purest form.

My mood lifted. I’m killing it again, I thought, picturing myself striding out of the house in that striped miniskirt with black combat boots and a black beaded flower perched on the side of my head.

This was one of those days. When I let myself go there. I let myself think about the fact that I have a life-threatening illness. About what it could mean. About what it has meant for others before me. But then I pull myself back. I was just visiting. I won’t linger. I will not. It won’t be me.

It’s okay for me to visit. I never stay long. But then I know that I am really dealing with this and it isn’t all for show. Not just a brave facade. Not just for you. I know what could be. And have chosen to reject it.

Because I’m killing it. Fuck you, cancer.

How To Tell Your Children That You Have Breast Cancer

One of the hardest things my husband and I have had to do since all of this started, and indeed, ever in our lives, is to sit down and tell our young children that I had breast cancer.

We waited until a few days after my diagnosis before we let on that anything was going on. This was very difficult, because during those initial days leading up to and following the diagnosis I was on the phone so much that I was constantly tiptoeing around the house, shutting myself in rooms and hunching over the receiver trying to arrange doctors appointments, get my pathology slides FedExed to London from the US and other delightful logistical nonsense. All while pretending to be same ole Mommy.

The “you have cancer” call came the evening of the girls’ first day back at school after Christmas holidays, January 3. That was a Tuesday. Bill and I decided that we would tell the kids that weekend so that we could (a) have time to figure out how to do it, (b) procrastinate it for a few days for mental health reasons, and (c) keep a close eye on the girls over the weekend in case they seemed anxious or upset following the big talk.

As I think back to that time, which seems like ages ago but in fact was not so long ago at all, I can tell you right now that my thinking was not nearly as clear as it is currently. I was still reeling from the news, as was Bill, and I really wasn’t sure how to go about telling the kids. What was clear from the get-go, however, and what we both agreed, was that we would tell them. We never considered otherwise.

Let me give you some background.

Our girls, who were seven and four at the time, are no slouches. They are smart and perceptive. The first-born is fairly high-strung and a bit of a worrier, which I consider to be unsurprising for a first child. The little one is more laid back but highly sensitive and empathetic and seems to notice everything around her even when you think she is not paying attention.

Some people hinted that given their ages, the kids, particularly the “baby,” wouldn’t really “get it.” That they wouldn’t understand what was going on and the whole thing would just wash over them. Whenever I fielded a comment such as this I tried to let it slide, fighting that honey badger instinct to tell the well-meaning yet misguided person, pardon my French, that that was a load of bullshit. No one knows your own children the way you do. Trust your instincts.

So, we set the date. We would tell them on Saturday morning after breakfast so that they would be fed and comfortable and then we would have the whole rest of the day and the next day to watch them, let the news percolate and evaluate the fallout.

In preparation, I did a little bit of internet research on some cancer websites. I watched a video about a woman telling her kids she had breast cancer. That particular video involved two children with a large age gap (one was a teenager), so the mother decided to tell the kids separately because they would have different levels of understanding and different emotional needs. I thought that was an excellent point, though it didn’t apply to our children. We would be telling them together.

Then, at one of my doctors appointments, I was given a book about talking to young children about early stage breast cancer entitled Mummy’s Lump. It goes very briefly through the mother finding a lump in her breast, going to the doctor and being told the lump is bad and is breast cancer, and the mother having surgery to remove the lump, then chemotherapy and radiation. At the end, the family is pictured on the beach and the mom is in the water, her hair having grown back, playing with one of the kids. Short and sweet.

I flipped through it and decided that it wasn’t half bad and would use it as a prop to guide my discussion. Now that I reread it, four months later and with some perspective, I actually think that it is pretty well done, considering the topic. Here’s why:

(1) It uses the word “cancer.” Using the c-word allows YOU, the parent, to contextualize the disease for your children, who may have terrifying associations with the word (or may develop them if you fail to contextualize it and they later hear or see something) if they have heard or seen something about it, say on TV or from a classmate.

(2) It explains that the cancer is not contagious, and that it is not the children’s fault (or anyone’s, indeed) that it occurred.

(3) It depicts the mom in a nice hospital room with flowers and chocolates (hey, these things are important!).

(4) It briefly outlines the treatments and explains that such treatments might make the mom feel poorly but that they will ultimately help (kill it!) and then she will feel better.

Now, there is no one perfect book for everyone. For instance, it appears to me that this particular book was written about someone having a lumpectomy rather than a double mastectomy with several reconstruction surgeries ahead. This doesn’t matter. You can pick and choose what you want from this or another book and fill in the rest.

When we told our kids about my cancer, it was very early in the process and we did not know what treatment I would be having. Nevertheless, we talked about chemo and radiation to help prepare the kids in the event I needed those treatments. We decided not to wait until we had a clearer picture of what was going to happen because the slinking around the house was getting old fast and Bill and I both knew that the kids would start to figure out something was wrong. Not telling them when we did, in our view, would have been insensitive and disrespectful.

Here is what I did not find in the book, and my own two cents, having thought about these issues and discussed them with a preschool educator whom I highly respect:

(1) Do not lie, but at the same time do not reveal to your young child any anxieties you have about dying. Your child wants to know that he or she will be cared for and that you will be around to do that. Sharing your own thoughts regarding this could produce a great deal of anxiety in a small child.

Let me qualify (1) above by saying that I am not giving any advice about later stage cancers or circumstances in which it is known that a parent is not likely to recover. I am focused here on early stage breast cancer, for which there is a good recovery rate. I am also not talking about discussing these matters with older children, which is a different ball game altogether and something that I haven’t had to think about.

(2) Explain to your children that it is all right to feel sad or upset about the cancer (and all it entails), and that it is okay to ask you questions about it. When we talked to our children, we told them that they should feel free to talk about the cancer and to ask me any questions they had about it, at any time. Of course, this has come back to bite me in all sorts of hilarious ways — but that is fodder for a separate blog on the funny things children say, which I promise to do in the near future.

I found that if I talked regularly (and joked, frequently) about my cancer with the children, it became less of a scary thing. I sprinkled it into conversations here and there, and it became the new (temporary — because I’m killing it) normal. Taboo isn’t good when it comes to something like this. Respect your child and allow them to hear about, process and talk about the issue. Then it might be a little less scary.

(3) Find someone at your child’s school (teachers, guidance counsellor, etc.) who is a safe person to talk to for your child and reach out to them to make sure they are keeping an eye on your child. Let your child know that they can go talk to this person about the cancer if they want to, but don’t force the issue. I know that my seven-year-old doesn’t talk about it at school. School is a safe haven for her where she doesn’t have to talk or think about my cancer. But she knows she can and whom she can go to if she ever wants to.

So how did it go? Well, I’d have to say really pretty well. The older child looked a bit stricken and went silent for a while. She had heard the word cancer before and definitely had some associations with it so I was happy to leap in and contextualize it for her as a disease that can be beaten. The younger child seemed to focus on the chemotherapy and the fact that I might lose my hair. She didn’t like that one bit and kept asking me (every day practically) if I would need “the medicine that would make my hair fall out.” Well if you have read my post “Cold Cap: From Rapunzel to Rambo,” you know that in the end she decided that bald wasn’t so bad. So for her it was all just a matter of easing into the idea.

What you don’t discuss can become very scary. Like the boogeyman. What you do discuss, however, you control to a certain extent. You can contextualize it. You can mock it. You can rock it. You can KILL IT.

You certainly can’t control everything, but feeling some control here is a very very good thing. Trust me.