I have breast cancer and the kids are all right

Meredith Fein Lichtenberg on being a mom with breast cancer

Meredith Fein Lichtenberg poses for a photo with her family. She writes for 'A Mother is Born' and The Huffington Post. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

People ask how the kids are doing. I answer, "They're either okay or they're sociopaths."

What I mean is, since learning I had breast cancer, they've been sometimes tender and helpful, sometimes selfish, insensitive jerks. Their usual mixture. My 8-year-old complains that I get presents and she doesn't. My teenager, in a moody, oblivious moment days after the mastectomy, threw a pillow at me. I tell myself this means they're not traumatized. But I wonder, sometimes, if they get it.

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A few months ago, I was lying in a dark room, biopsy needle against my left breast. I was not concerned. I am a lactation consultant; I feel lumpy breasts with some frequency. It's rarely cancer. Then I turned to see the radiologist's face. It's not like her face fell dramatically. She didn't gasp in horror. But as a health care provider, I know the face that says, for a millisecond, "it's not good," the tiny muscles that contract instantly to control the expression, the act of composing oneself to complete an exam before giving bad news.

In that moment, my two kids were woven into one being, neither name ahead of the other, just The Kids, braided together. My own welfare ceased to exist except as it pertained to them. I can't do this to the kids. I don't want the kids to be afraid. I don't want to ruin their summer, their year, their childhoods. I can't leave them; I can't leave them even a little. They were my first hundred thoughts. Only later could I think of my husband, my work, myself.

It's easier, though, to have zen-like clarity when they're not there.

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Once, a dozen years ago, my eldest poured lotion all over my new duvet cover. It was an innocent mistake, but I was maniacal with that powerless feeling you get from toddlers. By some grace, though, I was able to put my rage aside, and we cleaned up together, without me screaming about money issues my kid was way too young for. We all know, of course, that terrifying a child with your own anger or panic is not the best way to make sure they "get it." But it's a parenting success to hold to that when they've provoked you.

But an hour later, it still wasn't over for me: I was brimming with the pent-up frustration and impotence I hadn't spewed out. Had I been clear enough? I wondered, while my kid ate lunch, jolly, unburdened. If I'd vented, yelled, seen tears or a look of real shame at least I'd feel the message had gotten through, I felt.

It's similar with cancer. I've tried to protect them, not from the truth, but from my adult emotions, and when they behave normally, unsaddled with my fears and feelings – precisely as I've tried to make possible – it's weird. Yesterday, one of them was moaning that we hadn't done anything fun (all day/month/ever), while I lay in bed recovering from chemo. I was feeling like hell, appalled by her whining. I wanted, momentarily, to apply the Cancer Card swiftly, like duct tape on the mouth.

But the Cancer Card says "I could die." That is potent stuff, too harsh for this infraction, for the eight year old I supposedly think only of protecting. Sure, her behavior was bad, but my kids have also complained about "never" having fun under far better circumstances. She was acting normal. Like I want her to.

When I was first diagnosed, I consulted the American Cancer Society's Web site about how to tell kids. Those early conversations went smoothly. At each turn, the kids asked surprisingly scientific questions ("will you lose your nose hair?"); there weren't tears. I wondered if we had buried the lede. There was an impulse to say "you guys do get that I have cancer, right?"

But lately, I think cancer just doesn't mean, to them, what it means to adults. I grew up just after the word could be spoken above a whisper, but it still had the ring of death. People went bald and skinny, then died. A friend's father had surgery where "they got it all." He was dead six months later. Someone's mother was visibly gaunt in synagogue one year. By the next year's shofar she was gone. But my kids are young enough, and many treatments better enough, that "cancer" and "chemo" don't evoke those same horrors. And they needn't – this cancer isn't likely to kill me. It's probably just going to scare and exhaust me.

Maybe it's not that they don't "get it" but that they, miraculously, believe that. My teenager balks at reasonable suggestions like "get offline by 11 p.m.," but, lately, doesn't flinch when asked to run to the grocery store. And though my little one is often more interested in the iPad than a snuggle, this morning she leaned in for a hug, quietly maneuvering around the tender left side, and said, as she kissed me, "here's your medicine."

They get it enough.

Meredith Fein Lichtenberg tweets @amotherisborn, is a board certified lactation consultant and writer in New York City.

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