Philip Lerman -- Talking to My Son About His Mom's Cancer

By Philip Lerman
Sunday, October 11, 2009

The news was a relief: The little spots on my wife Rachel's mammogram were probably nothing, but the doctor had ordered a biopsy just to be safe. Sure enough, it came back benign. So when the doctor called again the next week, I didn't think anything of it.

Until Rachel got off the phone. "They mixed up the reports," she said, with a look on her face I'd never seen before, the twisted smile of a woman betrayed by a terrible cosmic joke. "The good biopsy was from four years ago. They just faxed over the right report."

She took a deep breath. "He used the word 'cancer.' "

Through the reassuring hugs and the brave lies we told each other over the next few hours, as we scrambled to our computers to catch up on 20 years of articles on breast cancer that we'd both always ignored, one question waited:

How am I going to tell Max?

Max, who'd just turned 7, had lost his grandpa to cancer in the past year (and by sad coincidence, his dog, as well). So telling him that Mommy had cancer was sure to raise horrible questions. I had no clue how to answer them. Telling Max's older sister, in college, was excruciating -- but this was absolutely impossible.

My mother also received a diagnosis of cancer when I was 7. My family's solution was denial: No one ever told me she was sick, let alone used the word. One afternoon, my mother was taken away to the hospital. I asked my father why she was going in an ambulance. "It's just cheaper than a taxi," he said, which sounded perfectly plausible to me. I went off down the sidewalk to play ball. And I never saw my mother again.

I could not even begin to deal with the fact that, once again, we were walking near that dark abyss. Rachel will survive this; there is no question. Nevertheless, I was aware that, somehow, I had to let Max know what was up.

It was easy, at first. The doctors told us we'd caught the cancer early, and they used the terms that all cancer patients quickly learn and hang their hopes on: The tumor is less than a centimeter. That's good. The cancer has in all likelihood not reached the lymph nodes under the arm. That's huge. We're probably looking at a lumpectomy, not a mastectomy, followed by radiation. No chemotherapy. That's enormous.

Buoyed by reports from other survivors of this early-stage breast cancer, we stayed brave and cheerful around Max: Mommy's having an operation, and it will make her sore for a few weeks, but then she'll be fine, we told him.

But it would not stay that easy. Because after the operation, Rachel's surgeon sat down with me in the waiting room and laid it out straight. "It's much worse than I thought," she said, explaining that the lesion was more than three centimeters. "I had to take out 21 nodes. Ten showed involvement. That means Stage Three cancer at least. You're probably looking at intensive chemotherapy. We'll have to do a scan to see if it has metastasized anywhere else in her body. I'm sorry."

I did what any other husband and father would do in that badly lit room filled with posters of cheerful cancer survivors. I looked out the window and cried, the one and only cry I would allow myself though the whole process. And then I went off to reassure my wife and figure out what I would tell my son.


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