I’ve always operated on a need-to-know basis with my kids when it came to providing information and as their mum, it was up to me to decide what they did and didn’t need to be exposed to when they while they were still young and carefree. On the list of things not to share was the fact that I had a strong family history of breast cancer and was also a carrier of the BRCA1 gene, aka the breast cancer gene.
And that is why, when I decided to have a preventative double mastectomy with reconstruction my husband and I agreed to tell the kids that “Mommy was having an operation on her stomach so she stays healthy.” I said “stomach” because the reconstruction would be done using my stomach fat and muscle. They were 7,3,5 and 1 years old and the only question I got (from the older two) was, “How long will you be in the hospital?” I told them I’d be home in four days and that I’d be counting on them to be extra helpful while I recovered.
The truth is, as parents, we become experts in deceit for many reasons; to shield our kids from harm, to delight them with a surprise and sometimes to maintain that elusive personal space which kids tend to encroach on.
I didn’t have the words to explain any further than that. How could they grasp the notion that my mum had died of breast cancer at 42 and my grandmother at 49 when they’d never even met either of those women?
Had all gone to plan, I’d have come home to recuperate, and been back to myself in about six weeks. But all did not go to plan. The pathology showed early but aggressive cancer in one breast and while it was gratifying to know that I’d literally saved my own life, it meant that I would need preventative chemotherapy just to make sure that all traces of cancer were gone.
Before I could even ask, my oncologist (I now had an oncologist!) warned me that the chances of me losing my hair would be 100%.
My first thought was, “How am I supposed to hide this from the kids?”
Amazon is well stocked with books that offer advice to parents who have to talk to kids about their illnesses. But I wasn’t sick. The sickness was removed from me and now I had to undergo treatment that would make me look and feel really sick.
I was enraged that despite my best efforts, I’d have to endure the very treatment I’d sought to avoid in the first place. I just needed to get through it and move on. And I needed to distract myself through treatment, almost pretend it wasn’t happening.
So I got a bunch of nice hats, two top quality wigs and lots of makeup advice from professional makeup artists. If I could fool my kids, I could almost fool myself into believing that the nightmare I was living through wasn’t real. I also knew that if they knew they’d ask me lots of questions, as kids tend to do, then I’d be constantly yanked out of my “everything is fine” state of mind back into my bald, nauseous reality.
I had an army of people to keep my kids occupied and distracted (Presents! Sleepovers! Extra TV time!) when I was feeling battered. But most of the time, when I was feeling pretty ok, I got on with my mum duties as usual. That is what kept me sane.
The only thing that wasn’t usual at all was the fact that one day I suddenly started wearing hats all the time. During the day I’d wear a hat over a wig so the illusion was complete. I looked like me, just with a cap or fedora. At night I slept in a large beret, in case they paid me a midnight visit, and showered in a shower cap because little kids tend to burst into the bathroom unannounced. And when not in use, I’d stuff my wigs way back in my closet to avoid detection.
They never once asked me why I wore hats all the time when I’d never done so before. They didn’t seem to notice my thinning eyelashes or eyebrows either. All they noticed was their mum giving them a bath (in a hat), reading to them at bedtime (also in a hat) and dancing around the kitchen (sometimes in a large head wrap).
Eleven years have passed since that challenging time and when I think back, the most exhausting part of it all was hiding my physically altered state from my kids. I was on high alert, 24/7 and I’m sure that staying focused on my charade is what got me through.