“John,” I answered.
“And who’s the other one who’s dead?” he asked.
“George,” I replied, hoping he wouldn’t ask how he died. I never thought that explaining cancer to my child would be scarier than discussing gun violence. But that was before I had cancer.
“What’d he die of?” he asked, predictably.
“Throat cancer.” I tried to sound both emphatic and nonchalant. In other words, not the cancer I had and not all that common.
“Oh,” he commented. “He must have sung his heart out.”
Great. Now my child – the one who was in the choir at Christmas and aspires to be his generation’s first American Idol – thinks you can get cancer from singing.
“Actually, no,” I corrected him. “He smoked a whole lotta cigarettes.” I felt like I was letting a fellow cancer sufferer down by placing the blame on him, and yet I was grateful for the anti-smoking cautionary tale.
He sat quietly for a while, while I imagined what he was thinking: If smoking causes cancer, and my mom doesn’t smoke, how come she got cancer?
I thought about explaining that some researchers and doctors believe that the incidence of my cancer, non Hodgkin’s lymphoma, has increased 70% over the past 20 years, possibly because of exposure to pesticides and chemicals, but I didn’t want to scare him. I’m frightened enough for both of us.
I contemplated telling him that my immune system may have been weakened from endometriosis, thereby adding to my risk, figuring that he’d feel relieved because he can’t get a “girl’s disease” like endometriosis.
Instead, I took him for ice cream. While he was enjoying his cone, I checked my phone messages at home. My oncologist had called with the results of my first post-remission PET scan. “Jennifer!” he cheered. “I hope you feel as good as this scan looks.”
That, I decided, I’d share with my son.
*Originally ran on GoodHousekeeping.com in 2008