There have been many bad days in my life... and many, many more good ones. But when I look back, I realize the worst day of my life was not the day, seven years ago, when I learned I had breast cancer (though that was a terrifying day, indeed). It wasn't the day my mother died, or my father died (though both of those days were heart-wrenching). But the worst day of all was the day I had to tell my children that I had cancer.
I'm not saying it was the worst because anything particularly bad happened when I made my announcement. In fact, my three young men -- who were then 14, 17, and 22 -- took the news with great strength. But for me it was the worst, because I somehow felt I had failed them. If I were to die, it would be entirely my own fault (or so I thought at the time). Typically, as a mother, I bore the guilt of my disease, although it could have been caused by any number of factors, many of which were totally out of my control. Still, I had to fight back tears of self recrimination. How could I have done this to them?
After meeting with my surgeon (having been given a heads up several days before by a radiologist who said that things looked ominous and I would need breast surgery) I dragged myself home, deciding to tell the kids immediately and "get it over with." On that particular afternoon, they were all at home at the same time (a rare event). It was late afternoon, and as I came up the bedroom stairs, I announced, "I need you in one room right now so that I can talk to you all together." My husband was out, but he already knew.
There must have been something in my voice, because at that moment they all emerged from their private quarters and convened in the youngest's room. They must have suspected from the urgency in my tone that this wasn't going to be about pitching in with the laundry or coming to dinner on time. As they stood expectantly waiting, the words seemed to be stuck in my throat. Finally, I gathered my courage and said, "I've gone for a mammogram, and the doctor has discovered that I have breast cancer. But I'm going to have surgery and treatment and it will be okay."
Of course, I didn't really know if I'd be okay at that point, but the odds and statistics were in my favor because my tumor was in the early stages. Still, I wasn't feeling very hopeful at that moment: I was shocked, scared, and anxious but I didn't want to transmit my doubts to the kids.
Most parents know what it's like to have to "suck it up" and act like everything is okay even when it may not be; whether it's about losing a job, a divorce, or... cancer. We don't want our kids to sense that we're freaking out, although we don't want to be dishonest and secretive, either. It's a fine line we walk as parents between assuring our kids that they are safe, secure and loved and yet letting them know that sometimes, though we try our best, life can deal us a hard -- and sometimes even insurmountable -- blow.
My sons reacted admirably that day. My eldest (who is not usually demonstrative) hugged me and said, "You're gonna be fine." My middle son's eyes filled with tears, but he didn't lose it -- just enough to show me he cares. My youngest said nothing, but that night he tucked me into bed. They were, in short, wonderful. And that was the beginning of my feeling -- in spite of cancer --that I was inordinately blessed.
Telling my kids that I had breast cancer was the worst day of my life. But it was also the day I woke up to the fact that no matter what happened, I was surrounded by love. I would not wish this disease on anyone, but it did teach me that sometimes the worst, scariest things that we have to face in life can unexpectedly lead from darkness to light.
Author's note: This post is adapted from my forthcoming memoir Yin, Yang, Yogini: A Woman's Quest for Balance, Strength and Inner Peace, about breast cancer and transformation through yoga, now on pre-order at online booksellers.