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November 23, 2017

Talking with kids: Mama has cancer, but life goes on.

There was one conversation I never wanted to have with my children.

The conversation had nothing to do with sex, drugs, drinking, my past or any of the other topics some parents seem to stumble through.  I’ve had plenty of those and never once felt butterflies in my stomach.

There was one conversation I never wanted to have with my children, and when the teachable moment came up, I was absolutely terrified.

I had to tell my children their mother has cancer.

The initial diagnosis
Yes, I have cancer –  thyroid cancer to be exact. My diagnosis came two weeks ago.

An MRI first revealed two small nodules at the base of my neck when neurologists were testing me for multiple sclerosis last year. Time went by, and I forgot about the lumps.  Over the next several months, I developed neck pain, and  I brushed it off as merely a sign of life after 40. Your neck and back ache; it’s just part of growing older.  In a bizarre bit of irony, I found my radiology report just a few weeks ago while I was preparing for our pain-in-the-neck tax return. The last item on the report caught my eye, “Follow up on thyroid nodules with ultrasound.” How could I have missed that?

Our family physician did the ultrasound and then ordered a needle biopsy on one of the nodules. Two days later I learned the biopsy revealed papillary carcinoma, a form of thyroid cancer. My thyroid and its neighboring lymph nodes will be surgically removed in just a few days.

Family experience with cancer
My children’s up-close and personal experience with this disease has not been positive. They watched our beloved pup, Cotton, waste away from malignancy until we humanely ended her suffering. It was heartbreaking for all of us. My uncle passed away of lung cancer two years ago, and my children witnessed the sadness that engulfed the entire family. They know teachers and friends’ parents who have beaten the disease, and they feel joy for those cases; however, they fear cancer as a killer when it comes too close to home.

Surprisingly, the disease provides the back story of my teen daughter’s favorite book, “The Fault in Our Stars”  by John Green*. The book, which be released as a movie in June 2014, is a heart wrenching and yet affirming story about teens finding love while dying of cancer. Green dedicated his young adult novel to the memory of his friend, Esther Earl, who died in 2010 after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. She was 16.

I didn’t realize the connection when I first told my daughter about my diagnosis. Her prior personal experience, teamed with “The Fault in Our Stars,” surely did not paint a bright picture. However, I tried to reassure her that thyroid cancer has an excellent cure rate when caught in its early stages.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the book’s main character and Esther Earl had a rare and advanced form of my disease.

I have no idea what stage my cancer has reached and won’t know until after surgery and follow-up scans. My doctors tell me surgery and radiation can cure it, and I can go on to live a long and healthy life, albeit with a few adjustments.  My cancer has one of the highest survival rates among its disease cousins; 95 percent of adults survive at least 10 years after treatment. I’m choosing to be an optimist.

The conversation with my daughter was brief, as was my conversation with my 10-year-old son. He curled up beside me and said, “I will help you every day.” We then talked about our recent fossil hunting adventure at the creek.

There have been other conversations since my big bombshell, and although they won’t say the c-word, my children are asking questions and opening up. They’ve asked their friends and teachers to pray for me. They’re being a bit nicer and more obedient. They hug me more.

Postponing life
“The Fault in Our Stars” opens in theaters in roughly six weeks, and prior to my diagnosis, my daughter and I talked excitedly about going to the premier. She asked about it again last night, and I quickly said  I may need to wait a while before I saw it. She looked disappointed, but nodded her head in understanding.

I later kicked myself for my quick response and realized my error. I shouldn’t wait on anything! I have cancer, but life goes on. I need to go to the movie with her. I need to search for more fossils with my son. I need to throw myself down on the ground and scream “THIS IS NOT FAIR” to God, and then allow Him pick me up and get me moving again.

I had been so focused on teachable moments with my children that I’ve neglected the teachable moment  I had in front of me –   a cancer diagnosis doesn’t require you to postpone life; it requires you to embrace life immediately and live it as fully as you can for as long as you can.

 

-This post was written on April 15, and my surgery was done on April 17. The procedure went well, and I am very grateful for Dr. Dale Ehmer and his surgical team, as well as my post-op nurses at Centennial Medical Center.

*”The Fault in Our Stars” is better suited for mature teens due to its subject matter. The parents of Esther Earl, the real life inspiration for the book’s main character, recently released a book of their daughter’s writings through their foundation, This Star Won’t Go Out. Proceeds from the book will benefit youth cancer programs. Learn more about Esther’s life and legacy.

 

 


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15 Comments on Talking with kids: Mama has cancer, but life goes on.

  1. Kim. I am deeply moved. I will be praying. Sorry you haven’t heard from me for a while. Life has thrown me not just curve balls, but spit balls, too. God keep His hand on you and your family, from my heart to yours.

    Brigitte

  2. How beg were the nodules?
    Did they check your lymph nodes?
    Have you been exposed to radiation?
    Have you been taking birth control pills??
    Too many questions and still no answer why more women and men are diagnosed with thyroid cancer despite iodine- sufficient diets water purification systems and abundance of food.
    FYI back in 1986 after Chernobyl disaster the rainwater in Portland, Oregon contained 500 picocuries of I-131 per liter. So anyone who consumed milk from Oregon at these times has an increased chance for developing thyroid abnormalities later in life.
    May I wish you the best with your treatment!

    • You raise an interesting point about the impact of “second hand” radiation. To my knowledge, I had never been exposed to radiation, and I didn’t have any other risk factors. However, my doctor said more adults are being diagnosed with thyroid cancer because the screening process has gotten so much better. They can now find these nodules when they are very small and do not have a chance to spread to other parts of the body. Mine nodule was roughly 1 cm by 1 cm, and thankfully, it did not spread to lymph nodes. I have a nuclear imaging study in a few weeks to see if the cells are present anywhere else.

      The whole hormone element of this cancer has got me looking at the foods my family eats. It may not have a connection, but I will be looking out for meats that have more hormones that I do.

  3. May God’s healing hands cover you and may His comfort embrace you and your family. 🙂

    And for a daughter, it’s much better to know what you’re going through than to not know at all. You’re an inspiration. 🙂

  4. Wow. I am so sorry to hear this, but it sounds like there are a lot of positives in the situation. Really great post, and my prayers are with you and your family.

    • There is some comedy with this whole thing. For example, they placed me on the labor and delivery floor after surgery, and I enjoyed messing with the postpartum nurses and patients by showing them my neck cut and complaining about the way my doctor did my C-section. There was also the demerol-induced “I must pee, pee, pee” song I used to page my nurses and my excited “Oooh, I look like a junkie” proclamation when I sobered up and noticed track marks on my arm caused by six blood draws.

  5. So sorry to hear the news, wishing you a speedy recovery and sending prayers your way……I know how scary this whole thing is, I am a 19yr survivor of breast cancer….keep us updated on your health….

  6. My thoughts and prayers go out to you for a quick recovery. You are blessed to have a strong family to stand with you, even though it did have to be the worst thing ever to tell your kids. Thank you for sharing your story. The Fault in Our Stars is a favorite of mine and my daughter’s. We can’t wait to see it in June. But I can see how it would certainly hit a little too close to home with you. I do hope you are able to enjoy it with your daughter. Thank you for the reminder that we must not put things off.

  7. You are right – toughest conversation for a parent to have with a child, and tough for a child to be on the listening end of.

    My mom learned she had breast cancer when I was about 32, but we were still about as close as we could be, given I was married with 3 kids and a move all over the country career. For all my fear of losing her, and given the natural tendency for parents and their kids to drift a little as kids grow older and assume their own set of responsibilities, we seemed to get closer and closer every day.

    I’d only offer one bit of advice – you may have a fear that this could expedite your time on earth (my wife had breast cancer 3 years ago and she clearly is driven to NOT MISS ANYTHING because of her embrace of the fear), but never forget your kids look to you as an example. I believe my kids know my wife is somewhat frightened of what the future will bring, but they don’t let on, and she attacks them with continuous challenges to include her in everything and let HER decide if she wants to participate or not (“after all, I am a grandmother now”), and she does the same with me.

    We all walk around on pins and needles sometimes with the least little pain or twinge or cough (which has always turned into nothing to sweat), but we have all learned to leverage our anxiety and whenever it kicks in for any of us, there is always some activity or event or idea that can bring us together for reassurance that everything is ok, so let’s laugh and goof and cut up and enjoy every minute we have on this earth, WHICH EVERYONE SHOULD BE DOING ANYWAY!!!

    Good luck to you and your family! Be prepared to learn more about yourself and them than you ever thought you would.

  8. You and your family will be in my prayers!

    Thank you for sharing this. The last sentence of your post is profound. I will be rolling it around my head throughout the day – it has broader life implications.

  9. I am so sorry to hear about this. I applaud you for your strength. My mother had Thyroid cancer as well. Luckily for her, it had not spread to her nodes. I am sure the doctors will warn you but I just want to make sure – be prepared for a depression with the loss of your thyroid even though they will give you synthetics. My husband’s friend also had Thyroid cancer but at the age of 40. Unluckily it had spread to his nodes. Both of them mentioned the difficulty of recognizing and recovering mentally from the depression. My thoughts are with you and your family.

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