Interlude: Preparing for a Crucial Conversation

Hyeon and I tried to find the best way to share the news with the kids. We benefitted from the advice of a good friend who is a psychotherapist. The following is an email message to her.

Thursday, December 9, 2010.

Hi liora,

After discussing the topic with Hyeon, I wrote up some thoughts of how to discuss the news with the kids.

Dad: [Setting up the conversation]

  • We wanted to go out and celebrate and enjoy the day because we, as a family, are about to enter a very difficult period.
  • Before I go into the details, I want to tell you that this is a very disturbing piece of news. Mom and I kept it secret for a few days because we didn’t want you, Daniel, to hear it over the phone and get distracted during your exam period.
  • I’m intentionally making the introduction a little longer so you have a chance to emotionally ‘brace yourself’ to what is about to come. So ‘strap on’ your seat belt because you are about to be jolted emotionally. There is a big challenge ahead.

Mom:

  • A week ago I went to the doctor because I didn’t feel well. Two days later I had an appointment with a specialist who suspected that I may have cancer.
  • We did the tests, and last Monday I found out that I have ovarian cancer. This one is particularly nasty because it comes with very little warning.
  • When I heard the news I was really upset and cried a lot. I was very sad for what is going to happen to the people that I love. You and dad are going to go through a difficult time. I am going to keep this as a secret from my parents.
  • It is okay to cry
  • <pause> opportunity for them to express their emotions

If they go into practical questions, or if they finish whatever expression of sadness:

  • It was fortunate that I’m very attuned to my body and was able to detect it without any significant signs of disease. I’m not in pain, just a slight discomfort.
  • The course of therapy ahead of me consists of an operation, to be followed by chemotherapy
  • Chemotherapy is a very painful experience. But I’m tough.
  • The disease is my next challenge. I am going to overcome it. I started researching everything that I can find on the web on the disease.
  • The odds are not in my favor, but I have very realistic reasons to be optimistic:
  • The odds are based on ten year old research. Medicine has made progress in those last ten years.
  • The odds are averaged across ladies that were much older when getting this illness, and probably nearly all of them ‘started’ in a much worse shape.
  • I have a fighting spirit and this is scientifically proven that people who are feisty have a better chance of survival.
  • I am going to conquer it.

What do I want of you:

  • First, to state the obvious, you had NOTHING to do with me getting cancer. Nobody knows what is the origin of the disease but one thing is for certain — you don’t get it from your kids.
  • Lead a normal life. You will quickly realize that dad and I are treating this whole thing with a certain amount of humor. Just like the bandits in Guatemala, this is a bad thing, but with the right attitude it will make us stronger.
  • It is okay to feel happy about good things that happen to you. No need to be hushed, no need to be somber.
  • I am very fortunate to have your dad supporting me. He is doing a great job, and there is really no need for you to do anything. Be yourselves. I enjoy you even when you don’t make any effort to be nice to me. And yes, sometimes I don’t enjoy you, and that’s okay too.
  • I will continue to annoy you at times. We will continue to be a normal family that deals with small annoying things that life is made of.
  • I will give you updates about the progress of my disease. I don’t plan to mislead you.
  • This is a marathon, not a sprint. I am starting on a long journey that would be difficult and challenging, but I never shied away from challenges.
  • Monday is going to be my new birthday. That’s the day that I am going to start getting rid of the disease that threatens me. I plan to celebrate many more birthdays with you.

… More free flowing discussion. At some later time, either with the two of them together or with each one alone:

Dad:

  • What mom really wants is for you to go through this experience and be strengthened by it.
  • I didn’t wish this upon us. But now that this is happening, we should be thoughtful about how we are going to handle this.
  • This will force you to grow up a bit faster than you would otherwise. Fortunately, you are old enough to be able to handle this.
  • I know that as teen-agers you still have a need to put more distance between yourselves and your parents. Don’t let this disease make you feel bad about it. Yes, it is frustrating for us sometime when you are getting a bit more distant, but that is what we always expected. Don’t feel like mom’s disease is preventing you from separating yourselves from us. Keep at it.
  • It is okay to cry. I cried. I sobbed.
  • I am optimistic. I am not good at hiding my emotions. You guys know that. You can tell even when I’m just trying to hide my emotions.
  • I am a little bit scared, but mostly optimistic. I admire your mom and her fighting spirit. If anybody can beat the odds, she can.