How the hell do you tell your six year old you’ve got cancer? What’s the right way? Is there a right way?
So many bloody questions. Not so many clear answers.
I prepared for it by going online, obviously. Clumsily Googled ‘how do you tell your child you’ve got cancer’ and up popped a book called Mummy’s Lump. I ordered it straight away, paying extra for express delivery as I’d decided that time was of the essence. Not because I was about to pop my clogs but because the sooner Jake knew the sooner we could start to normalize this new life. Nothing had felt normal for so long and that’s what I craved more than anything else. We needed it. As a new, broken, family we needed to find a new normal. I had to minimise cancer as much as possible and show Jake that it was business as usual which of course, in so many ways, it was. Everything at home simply had to carry on.
Spiderman was his latest obsession. Leaving behind the chubby cheeks and squeezable thighs of toddlerhood Jakey was, predictably, turning his attention to superheroes and baddies. Dolby surround sound and glorious technicolour now captivated him more than Noddy and his mediocre adventures in Toy Town. A natural progression, I guess. He was changing, moving into a different phase which was of course, perfectly natural but also there was no denying that his cushioned, cosseted, safe little world had already been badly shaken and so I really needed to get this right.
I don’t know what I was expecting as I sat in the kitchen and called him down to join me.
I fidgeted nervously as I waited for my pocket-sized Spiderman to appear.
“I’m Black Spiderman today, mummy,” he piped from the hall. The highly flammable (but genius) two-in-one reversible costume being his outfit of choice yet again. It seemed rather fitting given the circumstances.
“Wow, darling,” I said with a rather feeble fake smile. “Scary! Come and sit with me, angel, let’s have a chat.”
Jake clambered up onto the stool next to me, briefly glancing at the brightly illustrated book that I’d placed oh so casually before him. I took a deep breath and began my spiel, quietly confident in the lines I’d rehearsed.
“So, Jakey,” I began. “You know how there have been lots of people in the flat over the last few days and lots of our friends have been helping with the babies and mummy has been going to lots of different appointments?”
My miniature Marvel character had already glazed over and could not have been less interested in the comings and goings that had recently occurred.
“Well, darling,” and this was the bit I knew I’d struggle with. “Mummy’s got a nasty lump and so the doctors are going to give me some really, really strong medicine to make the lump go away.”
“Okay, mummy,” said Jake, clearly uninterested and about to slide off the stool and hunt out the biscuit tin.
“The crazy thing is Jakey,” I said gently, holding his arm and keeping him where he was. “The really strong medicine that’s going to make the lump go away is also going to make mummy’s hair fall out.”
There was a silence.
“All your hair?”
“Yes, angel. I think so.”
“Are you going to be bald like that lady off the telly?”
Ah, Jade Goody. A rather controversial nation’s sweetheart. She’d died the year before and I, like many, had found myself gripped by how the tragic last few months of how this young mum’s life had played out. Jake too, it seems.
“Yeah, isn’t it crazy?!” I grinned in what was probably a rather unhinged way. “I’m going to look a bit silly for a while but it really doesn’t matter because my hair will grow back and the lump will go away and I’ll be all better.” Please God let that be true.
“Okay, Mummy,” he said. “What’s for dinner?”
And that was that. Oh to be six years old. Oh to take things at face value and oh to be able to live in the moment so gloriously. Enjoy it while it lasts Jakey because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good. And off he went. Spinning imaginary webs and foraging for sweet biscuits that would make everything okay. Momentarily.
I don’t know about great power but I certainly did feel a great responsibility as I sat staring at the unopened book. Mummy’s Lump, eh? I didn’t need someone else’s words in the end. I just needed to speak to my boy truthfully. Bravely and bluntly. Bald mummy was coming.
Jake, can I borrow your superhero costume, darling?
Fast forward to the end of 2014 and I found myself facing chemotherapy once more. Devastated doesn’t come close to describing how shattered, terrified and angry I was that the cancer I thought had gone forever was rearing it’s ugly head once more.
Ella, Louis and Theo were now five, Jake eleven. Oh shit. I could barely look at them my heart was breaking so much, the thought of having to tell Jake I was ill again and, this time, the triplets was almost too much to bear.
So I played it down. Casual, low key, saving my wailing and pillow pounding for when I was alone.
’I need a bit more treatment Jake,’ I said as I sat on the edge of his bed and tried to tear him away from his phone. ‘It’s fine though, darling. I’m going to be fine.’
I think he believed me, he didn’t say much. His eyes widened, he went a bit pale and then glanced back down at the screen. We sat quietly for a few moments and then, after reaching over and kissing the top of his head, I edged out of the bedroom deciding that maybe I’d said enough for now.
And with my three feral five year olds? The word ‘cancer’ meant nothing to them back then so I chose not to use it. ‘Mummy’s a bit poorly, mummy’s going to be a bit more tired than usual..’ Glossing over the subject was the best I could manage. But that’s my way. I gloss over cancer. I don’t delve into the nitty gritty. I can’t. It simply scares me too much. And the very last thing I want to do is scare my babies.
Life goes on as normal in our house. The black cloud of cancer hovers ahead but for the most part, for now, my kids are oblivious.
‘Mummy has treatment.’
Let’s leave it at that shall we? Do you hear me cancer? Let’s leave it at that.