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It’s Your Kids’ World. You’re Just Barfing In It.

by Shelley Lewis

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Although our trip had been planned long before I found out I had breast cancer, I couldn’t have chosen a better place to go on vacation before chemotherapy. The Italians really know how to enjoy life. There’s natural beauty, art, great food and wine, and a pace that forces you to slow down and enjoy it. It was perfect.

Sort of. The truth is that while we had a wonderful trip, there was a lot of pressure on everybody to have One Last Good Time for a while. At first that sentiment was unspoken, then it was quietly articulated, and finally, it was snarled, all by me, all at our teenaged daughter, Julia, who just didn’t want to deal with my expectations. Looking back on it, she thinks I was a little too convincing when I told her not to worry and insisted that she not treat me differently. She definitely didn’t ease up on the parent-teenager drama. (Usually, when we traveled with Julia she brought a friend, but this time it was just the three of us. Silly me, I thought it would be good to have some intimate family time.)

Talking to your kids about cancer is a lot like talking to them for the first time about sex.

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Shelley Lewis

Instead, there was sulking at the Borghese Gardens in Rome, a meltdown in Perugia, a snarkfest in Todi. I will admit to being surprised by my daughter in Italy; she is normally a considerate and empathetic kid. She was with us at the hospital the day I had surgery and was helpful in the days afterward. But the pressure to Have a Meaningful Experience in Italy may have been too much. It all came to a head one day in the lovely town of Assisi, home of St. Francis. I had been lingering over silk headbands at some little shop, and when she asked me why, I told her I was thinking of getting a few for when my hair was thin from chemo.

“Stop talking about cancer,” she barked loudly at me. “I don’t want to hear about it anymore.” (Was I talking about it a lot? I thought I barely mentioned it; she says I mentioned it constantly. In any case, it was clearly too much for her.)

I have since learned that kids have their own way of dealing with the fear that comes with your diagnosis. Sometimes they’re unbelievably sweet and thoughtful, and sometimes they seem unfathomably selfish. Julia was mostly sweet and thoughtful, but she had her fearful moments. Teenagers in particular are tough; their emotions are so raw under the best of circumstances. Having a mother with breast cancer upsets their fragile equilibrium and forces them to confront one more thing to worry about, one more situation that sets them apart from their friends, one more problem that’s out of their control.

Still, I believe kids want to make some kind of contribution. I would suggest you ask your kids how they want to pitch in. Little ones may be more than eager to help you. Teenagers, while guarding their routines as much as possible, probably will also want to feel the sense of empowerment that is a by-product of responsibilities. Julia was a sympathetic and helpful daughter once I began the chemo and had days of feeling kind of lousy.

What looks like indifference may well be fear. I’ve come to think that talking to your kids about breast cancer is a lot like talking to them for the first time about sex. There’s a limit to how much information they can handle at one time. If you pay attention, you’ll know when they’ve taken in as much as they can in one sitting.

The very wise Ann Pleshette Murphy, who is Good Morning America’s parenting expert, suggests that you be as honest with your kids as possible. She also has a great technique for finding out how much they can handle: “When they ask you a tough question, about cancer or anything else, sometimes it’s best to ask them back, ‘What do you think is the answer?’ That way you find out what they’re thinking and you can respond without overwhelming them.”

And remember that when it comes to kids, it’s their world, and we’re just barfing in it.

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Shelley Lewis is executive producer of the weekly PBS news magazine program Need to Know. She lives in New York with her husband.

Excerpted with permission from Five Lessons I Didn’t Learn from Breast Cancer (and One Big One I Did), by Shelley Lewis, copyright © 2008 by Shelley Lewis, published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.