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How I Learned To Speak Cancer To My Kids

Something told me that until I found a way to talk to my kids about cancer, the disease might divide us.
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The biggest thing my boys have ever wanted to know about my breast cancer is whether it will kill me or not. They are elementary schoolers -- living in a world built on sturdy facts and long division: will Mommy live? Or will Mommy die? I haven't always known how to answer them.

My first surgery was in a Beijing hospital, and everyone in that operating room spoke Mandarin. I didn't speak anything. I was the silent patient -- the foreign woman whose Chinese was only good enough for ordering dumplings and taking high-speed cab rides to the fruit market across town.

I had a hard time speaking cancer to my boys. I couldn't figure out how to explain the disease and still reassure them that I'd be their person until I was old and gray. I needed to learn a new grammar, one the boys would understand, because something told me that until I found a way to talk to my kids about cancer, the disease might divide us.

Then I met a yoga teacher in Beijing named Mimi, who made it possible for me to touch my toes again and to imitate the pose of a cobra. She said she was running a class in a small village three hours from the capital, up in the Chinese mountains. Five days of yoga.

Ask a room of breast cancer patients what lingers for them after treatment and most of them will say something about tight muscles -- a band of them that stretches across their pectoral, under their arm and down the side of their rib cage. They may also talk about feeling apart from the people they love -- which are most often their kids. I had the tight muscle problem, and also the sensation of wordlessness with my boys -- I couldn't find the right descriptors for the mystery that was my cancer.

The first morning of yoga camp I stood on my head in the small, dirt-floored house in the village. The yoga was something I could deal with. The yoga didn't demand talking. The yoga I loved. But what happened after the yoga was something called a talking circle. What this circle looked like was twelve people seated on a rug, all staring at a round black stone. The idea was for each of us to stand, grab the stone and explain why we'd come to the mountains in the first place.

Oh God, I said to myself when I saw the stone. Talking? In circles? In the mountains? But one by one people stood, took the stone and sat back down. There was an oil painter there from Singapore beginning to get over the sudden death of her boyfriend. And there was an English teacher. And a Chinese mother of three. A doctor and a photographer. Finally, there were only two of us who hadn't spoken.

I stood up. I'd come for the yoga not the talking. But I took the stone and turned to the group and surprised myself. I said, "I'm here in the mountains because I have cancer and I can't talk about it with my kids." My skin grew tingly then, and my disease felt like that stone in my hand -- something that needed to be put down.

Everyone in the circle smiled at me, and when it was over, I walked up the hill past the donkeys, to my room in the wooden house above the cornfields, and I went to bed. Each night I talked a little more in the circle and I grew comfortable saying the words: mother and cancer.

When the five days in the mountains were up, I went home to Beijing. On my first morning back, my 8-year-old, Thorne, found me in my bedroom. I was wearing a tank top, about to pull a sweatshirt over my head. "Mom," he said quietly. "Mom, you've got to put sunscreen on there." He pointed at my armpit--the place where the radiated skin was peeling was the worst. "You just have to."

"Ok," I said calmly, as if I'd never thought of that. As if sunscreen would solve the entire problem. "Good idea. Sunscreen. I'll do it."

That's when the 6-year-old, Aidan, came in and said, "Did you know that there are one hundred women in the world who get breast cancer who can't fix it?"

"Sort of," I said, hoping to steer the conversation towards a soft landing.

"Yup," Aidan assured me. "One hundred. And that may sound like a lot but it's not really when you think of how many hundreds of people there are in the world." So here's the thing about children and cancer -- my children anyway. They muse on it. They make their own connections. They don't shy away from the scary stuff. I steered the boys down the hallway toward the front door.

"Let's go, guys," I called out to them and smiled. "Let's go to school."