Twice this week a mother with stage four cancer reached out to ask, “How am I supposed to talk with my children about this? What do I say?  What resources or research is there to show me how to explain cancer to my children?”

As the founder of a nonprofit serving young families, I feel this is a question that I must respond to publicly.  I am not a doctor or psychiatrist.  I have no formal training in the area, but I am a young mother with three young girls and I have stage four cancer.  I speak from the heart.  There seems to be a lack of discussion around this question, so I write today with the intentions of opening a discussion.  I invite women to respond, whether speaking from fear or solution.  You are not alone.  This question is on the minds of thousands of mothers across the country. 

I once went to a library curated for cancer patients to look for books and on this topic and literally walked away laughing at how silly or simplistically this issue was addressed.  I learned that day that there is room for growth, nationwide, on how we as a community, address this burden.  Perhaps, due to the difficulty of such a conversation, the answer cannot come from disassociated professionals, it must come from a mother’s heart.  We must speak the difficult words first.  We must share our hearts with one another, for in the practice of confessing the burden we carry, we may find we have the strength to speak the truth in love to our children.

The Burden:

A loving mother, gathers her children together to speak a painful truth, she is sharing her heart to them only now that no other alternatives for her remains.  She speaks in a deeply loving way: 

“My cancer has spread throughout my body.  I am going to die, but your life will go on.” 

As mothers, we are wired to protect our children from harm.  When diagnosed with stage four cancer the deepest question in our hearts is, “What if I become the greatest harm that will impact my child’s young life?

When I was initially diagnosed with stage four cancer, a Stanford Oncologist told me that research has shown honesty is the best policy.  She said to the extent that parents are honest with their children, in this difficult situation, that is the degree of honesty children will expect from others as an adult.

So theoretically, when my 6 year old child becomes 36 and her husband comes home acting upset about a situation at work that might have negative consequences on the family, she will:

  1.  Trust that no matter how difficult the circumstances, or what has happened, he is being honest with her. (If as a child her parents also communicated with her honestly)
  2. Question his story, asking more and more questions and never fully satisfied that she is getting the whole picture.  Always wondering if something worse is happening that he will not reveal.  (If as a child her parents communicated parts of a complicated reality in order to protect her)

This is the only advice I ever received from a doctor on how to speak with my children about my diagnosis.  My children were 2, 4, and 6 when I was initially diagnosed, so how I should proceed still wasn’t very clear.  In my heart, though, I couldn’t argue with “honesty is the best policy” because that is true in every situation, no matter how difficult.

After deep reflection, I came to some core beliefs.

  1. I am not the source of love.
  2. The people whom my children see as “family” needs to always be increasing.
  3. I must provide my children the tools that they need to grow to be adaptable.

The Reality of Motherhood:

Let’s face it, whether we like it or not, motherhood is a responsibility where we “work yourself out of a job.”

Though this sounds harsh and I obviously recognize our long term emotional and relational role in their lives, the truth is, if our kids need us to follow them to college to ensure their success, we have done something wrong.  Our children SHOULD grow, and grow to be independent of us.

It is hard to imagine the possibility of an independent child when you are juggling three preschoolers on your hip but as children grow, our core job is to invest 18 years into mentoring, teaching and encouraging our children to become something independent of us.

With this filter of motherhood in mind, I return to my three core beliefs for my children.

  1.  I am not the source of love for my child.  Though, perhaps, I am the first source of love they are able to comprehend, I will not be the last.  The love I have to offer comes from a broken mess of experiences from my life that I have tried to purify through prayer and forgiveness, but my love is not perfect.  Furthermore, it is and always will be finite because I am finite.  The source of love is bigger and more perfect that I could ever hope to be.
  2. I am not the only family they will have.  How small of a world they would know if I was the only family they were allowed to embrace.  Family, dedicated friends, and even ideas/causes that we give ourselves to should be vast in number and fierce in loyalty.  As a mother, I strive to allow my children to embrace others.  To build a network within their hearts, a network that I belong to but do not dominate or micromanage.  I must choose to release my holding of the majority of their affections.
  3. I will not be there everyday of their lives to shape the world around them, therefore they must learn to adapt to the circumstances they are given.  I think mothers, today, struggle with this one the most.  We have the ability to control many of the circumstances our children experience.  The question is whether or not we should.  Every adult knows that life is not easy.  Circumstance interferes with expectations. Disappointment builds as the years go by yet mothers often make it their mission to delay these experiences and realizations for the first two decades of a child’s life.

The question is whether or not we should.

For a mother impacted by cancer, the delay of such realizations is not an option.

I knew this was the case for my children.

I knew I could not delay such a burden from being dropped into their young hearts.

So, with that knowledge, instead of trying to adapt circumstances, I choose to invest myself in teaching my girls to develop the tools they need to help them carry the burdens of life.  After my second diagnosis I observed other mothers and toook note that most chose to draw their families inward. The mothers went into protective mode.  When I thought this through, to pull inward and invest all my energy into making the ties between me and my children as strong as possible before I die seemed unfair.  If I spent my years in this way there would be a vacuum in the lives of my children after my passing.  The chaos and instability that would occur in my absence would take years to overcome.  With this in mind, I chose to respond in an opposite manner. I have spent the past years investing our time in building a consistent outward spiral.  Church, school, clubs, performing arts, camp, family, friends.  Each of these circles now have a foundation of years of relationship and routine.  Each circle has 5-10 people who truly know my girls and have been with them as they grow. These circles each generate a wave of support, love and acknowledgement.  Furthermore, these circles have routines, traditions and highlight moments that will continue with or without me.  My girls have a life of their own.  In each circle there are mothers and mentors who will step in if I must step out.

I am not naive.  My death, whenever it occurs, will leave a significant impact on the lives of my children, obviously.  The question is will I leave them in a vacuum, will I leave them in chaos, will I leave them alone?

The tool my children most need is faith in God. This tool supersedes any brokenness they will experience in every person and every circumstance.

The Bible teaches me how God chose to parent us.  He does not choose to take away the trials of life.   Instead He implores us to “put on the whole armor of God” that we may have the tools necessary for continuing despite our circumstances.  Truth, Righteousness, Peace and Faith.  These are the tools my children need to learn, to wield, and use in dealing with the burdens they face everyday:

To seek out truth, in their hearts and in their relationships.

To live a life that is above reproach.

To turn away from fear and find rest in a peaceful heart.

To lean into their faith in every difficult situation.

These are the tools I choose to give my girls.  These tools are my legacy and I pray they will be the legacy of my children.

As mothers, we are demonstrators.  Our children learn from our actions every moment of everyday.  It is because of this that we too must speak truth: even in the most difficult situations.  We must live above reproach: even in the circumstances of our children’s lives.  We must turn away from fear: even when we are living with a cancer diagnosis.  We must lean into our faith in every difficult situation: even parenting.

Though our children’s memories may fade, the impression of our life on their heart will never be erased.  May we, as mothers, live lives worthy of the role we have been given.