Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tough talks and prayers

Chi went to a sleep over last night. It was her gymnastic studio's annual Halloween sleepover. Kids dressed in their costumes with leotards underneath and had what I can only imagine was organized chaos for the evening. She seemed to enjoy it, though the build up to the event was more fun than the execution of it. She suffered her first nose bleed following a swift kick in the nose by some other gymnast. I think that alone made her wish for home and lose enthusiasm for the programmed activities. Nevertheless, she braved the whole evening and returned to me this morning (carrying a dark load of laundry under her eyes) safe.

One of the other attendees, a rather handsome young chap of no more than eight, was sporting the tell-tale hairlessness of one actively combating cancer with radiation and chemotherapy. Chi's sleeping palette was next to his for the evening, and as she waved goodbye in the morning, she said to me quietly, "He's bald, mom." It was more of an observation than anything else, and she certainly didn't intend any malice or ridicule. We've got a lot of kids who've chosen the shaved head look, after all. I determined, though, that his hairstyle was less of a conscious choice, as his eyebrows were no longer a feature of that sweet face, and though he appeared quite strong, he had a look of wisdom and acceptance that children combating serious illness possess. I had noticed the young man's tee shirt of choice just so happened to be one advertising a cancer research and medical care organization.

Teachable moment? Yes, indeed. Talking about cancer is no fun and is truly difficult to do with the tenderness necessary to induce empathy and concern in a child.

How do you explain to your six year old what cancer actually is? She's no true understanding of cells and their functions, so how could she possibly understand that some cells are malformed, clump together and are dangerous? I thought about saying some cells are bad, cancer cells are among them... but then thought better of it knowing that my never-forget-a-thing daughter would go up to the next person she suspected had cancer and would say "you have bad cells." And I, the well-meaning parent, would turn scarlet and will myself to disappear from the situation, which would not likely happen.

So I fumbled along in my explanation. To the best of my recollection, the conversation went like this:

Mommy: "Sometimes, Chi, people get cancer. It's a disease. That little boy has cancer. His hair is gone because he's fighting it. "
Chi: "How do you catch it, Mommy?"
M: "Honey, I really don't know. Sometimes cancer just...happens. It's not something you catch, and you can't get it from someone else.
Your body has cells. Did you study cells in science class?"
C: "No."
M: "Okay. Well, your body is made up of cells. Cells have jobs. Some are your blood; some, your skin. Sometimes cells get messed up and they grow badly. They get sick and because they're sick, they clump together. This is dangerous to other cells that are around. So doctors try to kill the sick cells with a big machine or a liquid. Both of them attack the cancer, but your hair also gets killed."
C: " when you get cancer, your hair goes bald."
M: "No. Your hair falls out when you try to kill the cancer. We should say a prayer for him and ask God to give him strength to fight cancer and for God to help make it go away."
C:"Okay. He's a nice kid. I liked him. [pause] You know, I've seen some ladies with no hair, too."
M: "Lots of people are fighting cancer, Chi."
C: "I'll pray for them, too."

And at that point I got a little teary eyed and my throat clenched. I'll be praying, too, because no one should have to fight the cancer fight - - especially not a child.

1 comment:

Taylor said...

Poor girl with the nose bleed. I'm glad she was able to make it through the whole thing. I think you did and excellent job at explaining what cancer is.