How Do I Tell My Son That I Have Cancer?

I'm often stunned at the way people talk to children. I'm all in favor of honesty, but I recognize that children receive and process messages differently from adults.
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Back when I got my first diagnosis, I had to find a way to tell my (then) 6-year-old son about my illness. Honesty is important, but when talking to children, it's equally important to remember that they process information much differently than adults. A few simple concepts kept us both from freaking out.

The following is an excerpt from my book, Now It's Funny: How I Survived Cancer, Divorce and Other Looming Disasters.

What am I supposed to tell Luke? When do I even tell him anything? How do I tell him? I remember when I was a kid and my mother was hospitalized with some problem (to this day I'm not quite sure what it was) and she was gone for a few days and then back and alright, but the fear I felt is as palpable today as it was then. Where are you taking my mother? Why can't I go?

My first decision is to not tell anything to Luke until I know what the hell is going on. Since no one seems to be too clear about what the hell is going on for quite some time, it puts me in a serious bind. I'm sure he's got to be picking up on his kid-around-the-house radar that there are an awful lot of phone messages lately from people named Doctor So and So, coupled with the ubiquitous question asked of me by everyone hip to my plight, namely "How do you feel?" or its variant "Do you feel okay?" I've asked people to be careful not to leave any of the "We'll get through this" type messages on the machine. But I'm running out of time and I'm terrified he might learn about my illness from someone else, or worse, from some well-meaning individual saying something like: "You know Luke, no one lives forever."

I'm often stunned at the way people talk to children. I'm all in favor of honesty, but I recognize that children receive and process messages differently from adults. Tell them that someday we all must die and they envision a day in the not-too-distant future when EVERYONE will be dead, agonizingly so, including them. Tell them their father is sick and they will get terrified every time anyone else gets sick. They don't understand degrees of sickness like we do -- the nuances of language are so frequently lost on kids -- they're as literal as they come.

If I tell my son I have cancer, the next time he hears that someone died of cancer (which is inevitable) he'll panic. I ask my therapist about it and she gives me a great suggestion. She says: "Be honest. Be simple. Be brief. Then propose something fun like playing a game he enjoys." This is, in my opinion, some world-class advice. It actually might offset the refund I'm probably due from this very same therapist/marriage counselor since my marriage seems headed for divorce (a friend of mine says bluntly: "Probably due my ass. Tell her to give you your money back!")

I think there's a tendency for parents who have to deliver bad news to their kids to think of movies they've seen about death and illness; movies with surviving children. Or maybe it's just me and I'm projecting. In either case, you know the flicks I'm talking about. Dad's on bended knee. Little Bobby's wearing a tie wondering why Mommy isn't coming to the funeral and Dad's got to tell Little Bobby that it is actually Mommy's funeral they're going to, so she's coming, only in a "special" way. And the kid is sad but somehow understanding and of course the clincher is that the kid is already prepared to articulate his feelings. I see a lot of that shit in real life. Parents who want their kids to tell them how they feel right then and there.

Don't they watch sports on TV? Why do they think those immediate interviews right after the big game are all so idiotic? "You've just won the Super Bowl, how do you feel?" Sure, the guy will tell you he feels great, it was a team effort, and he was just trying to be all he could be, but what he figures out later, once he processes it all, is that he feels he was underpaid this year, or he feels he's entitled to some more recognition or he feels his old man was wrong about him when he was a kid and now it's too late to show him because he died three years ago.

I'm not gonna ask Luke how he feels. Not for a while.

What I do is this: I wait until four days before I'm supposed to go in the hospital. I tell him to come listen to me for a second. His babysitter Collette is nearby... I figure the less dramatic I am, the less frightening it will seem and telling him while someone else is around is a bit mellower. I tell him I've got to go to the hospital for a few days but I'll be back quickly. He asks why and I tell him I have something called a lesion inside of me (technically true, although later Steven the pediatrician thinks I may have caused him to imagine this lesion thing growing uncontrollably inside of me like a monster) and the doctor is going to take it out and that will be that. I tell him I don't know how I got the lesion but I'm not worried about it because the doctor said he could fix me up so it's no big deal. I tell him that he can come visit me in the hospital if he wants, just not the first day because those are the rules. Then I say, "Let's go get some ice cream."

And we do. Later I ask him if he's afraid because I'm going to the hospital and he says no and I say: "It's okay if you're afraid. But I wouldn't worry too much. Dad's gonna get fixed up just fine."

My guess is it's going to be a long time before he runs across the word lesion again. It just doesn't come up that much. I've never heard of anyone dying from a lesion although it's a daily occurrence among people with cancer. It's all about choice of words.