Together at the table: Sharing a breast cancer diagnosis with my children
At the dinner table, where we share our most memorable times as a family -- the table where I place the basket of Halloween candy between doorbell rings from excited and adorable costumed children -- holiday dinners are eaten, and family and friends alike gather on weekends to laugh, share stories, and navigate life together. This table is where serious talks happen, lessons are learned, and the connections that bind us as a family are made. It is at this table where my husband and I shared with our three children that mommy has breast cancer.
To say it was difficult would be an understatement. Having received the news myself that I had early-stage breast cancer over the phone while home alone with the children in school and my husband continents away -- I knew firsthand that it would be a defining moment for my sweet little ones. To this day, August 24, 2018, represents a line of demarcation in my life: Before Diagnosis and After Diagnosis.
As I visited doctors, learned the ins and outs of treatment options and prognosis, I would ask, “How do I explain this to my children?” My nurse navigator connected me with a licensed social worker who shared online articles with me. My oncologist suggested I reassure my children that I would be okay, that the surgery would remove the cancer, and the radiation and medication afterward would help to ensure that it would not come back. But, I know my children. And I dreaded having to utter (Oh my, would I be able to get the words out?) the words “mommy” and “cancer” in the same sentence.
After my husband arrived back in the U.S., we knew that we had to tell the children before extended family and friends. So, at the dinner table -- all three sitting on one side and my husband and I facing them from the opposite side of our rectangular family meeting space -- my husband began, “We have something we need to share with you all…” From there I honestly grew numb watching my children’s demeanor change as each new sentence reached their ears. They went from curious about what was going to be shared to looking fearful and distressed as they cried. My twelve-year-old daughter tried to wipe away her tears, but they rolled faster and faster to the point where she could not catch them -- then she began to sob loudly. My eleven-year-old daughter was way ahead of her big sister and was crying uncontrollably. My son, the youngest, was 5 years old. He sat between the two girls and kept looking from one sister to another, unsure of what his reaction should be. He looked afraid and confused.
I needed to speak. They needed to hear my voice. “I am going to be okay,” I told them. “The doctor said to let you know that they will take care of me.” To help soften the blow, I added that grandma and grandpa would be coming soon to support us while I went through surgery. We hugged and slowly the crying began to end. We encouraged them to ask questions at any time and reassured them that we would remain transparent in sharing what was happening. This would be an ongoing conversation over the months that followed.
As I looked at my girls whom I had hugged and consoled, I could not help but think about their changing bodies and how the news of my diagnosis would affect them. We had recently gone back-to-school shopping while visiting London. We bought bras and talked about their changing bodies and the importance of good hygiene. They were so excited to wear a bra and know all “the things” about becoming a woman. However, they were uncomfortable saying the word breasts. When I would speak to them prior to my diagnosis, they would look away and snicker at the sound of the word. Now cancer was making the word breast a regular part of our conversations. I guess cancer matures us all in a way.
Not only were breasts the topic of conversation now, but mine -- and not their breasts -- were center stage. I shared with the girls my genetic testing results. When I explained that I don't carry the gene, my oldest was reassured. Later she shared with me that she felt her breast for lumps in the shower concerned that she, at 12 years of age, might find breast cancer. I was proud of her for sharing her exploration of her body with me but saddened to know that she feared that cancer could be in her young body too.
My breast cancer journey included three lumpectomies where clear margins were not obtained each time. My children asked and wondered about whether the cancer could all be removed as the doctor had said. After the third pathology report showed unclear margins, a mastectomy was the next option. I desired a mastectomy from the start. I had breastfed all three of my children, and my husband and I had decided that we were not having more children.
I opted to have a bilateral mastectomy with DIEP Flap procedure. Leading up to the surgery, I remained in constant dialogue with my children about what was happening, and what I was planning to do. I didn’t want them to experience any surprises, if I could help it.
I explained to them what a mastectomy is and that mine would be nipple-sparing, and that I would still have breasts but all the breast tissue, including the cancer, would be removed. When I told them that the breast surgeon would be removing all of my breast tissue, the girls were intrigued. They wondered if my chest would be completely flat like their brother’s. When I explained that the breast tissue would be replaced with fat from my abdomen, they thought it was cool that I would receive a tummy tuck. I was secretly excited about it, because my youngest would sometimes ask if I was having another baby when he noticed the pooching at my waistline.
Today my girls are high schoolers, and they watch with a smile as they see their mom work in the community to help educate women about breast cancer and seek ways to eliminate health disparities specifically for Black women. Now when they hear of someone being diagnosed with the disease, they have hope and serve as a source of comfort and reassurance to others.
Juakita Berkley is a 45-year-old woman of faith, wife, and mother who resides in Texas. She was diagnosed with Stage 0 DCIS in 2018. Juakita enjoys asking questions and working collaboratively with others to create solutions. She treasures spending quality time with her husband and three children who provide inspiration and purpose in her life. One of her simple pleasures is relaxing with an elegant cup of steamy hot tea.