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What Color is my Cancer?
My daughter Lauren is 7 years old. She loves soccer, our new puppy, blue Gatorade and playing outside. Lauren is a twin sister to Emma, and a little sister to Connor and Claire. On Monday morning, my husband Dan takes Lauren to the pediatrician for a stomachache. I have an appointment downtown. Dan calls me when I’m in the parking garage. He’s crying. The pediatrician recommended Lauren get an ultrasound at the hospital, maybe it’s a blockage in her bowel. The ultrasound technician pulls Dan aside, out of earshot from Lauren and tells him it looks like a tumor and Lauren needs to be admitted. The oncologist will meet with us as soon as I get there.
It’s Wednesday night. It’s been less than 72 hours or a lifetime since that call. Dan brought the other kids to visit for a few hours. He just left to take them home. We both have a job tonight. He will tell our other kids Lauren has cancer. And I’ll tell Lauren.
I stall, for hours, I stall. Since Monday, the child life specialist keeps finding me. She asks if I told her yet. She offers to tell her for me. Lauren needs to know she reminds me. Lauren needs me to be honest and tell her. I know I say defensively. I haven’t told her yet, and I want it to come from me, and it hasn’t been the right time. As if there is a right time. I’m telling her tonight. I don’t think she believes me. I barely believe me.
Lauren knows I’m acting weird. I’m fawning over her, being overly solicitous, even more so than I have been since she was admitted. The show on Disney Channel ends and I turn off the TV. Hey Lauren, we need to talk. She’s a sensitive kid. I like to think all my kids are gifted, and I often joke that Lauren is a gifted worrier. She’s only 7, but Dan and I boast to each other she worries at a high school level.
Her eyes get big. I pull her onto the couch near me. Hey, I say, and I grab her hands. Mom, what’s wrong, what’s wrong, please tell me she begs. Well, the doctors figured out why your stomach has been hurting. Why? What’s wrong with me? I take a breath. You need to say it. Tell her I tell myself. Just say the words. Please let me get the words out. Let me get these words out and not break her. Please don’t let me break her. Tell her. Do it. Say it.
It’s cancer. You have cancer Lauren. What? She screams but it’s also a cry. It’s loud and guttural and I’ll never forget that sound. What did you say? I don’t want cancer. No mom. No. No. No. I’m just a kid. No. Mom did you say cancer? No. I can’t have cancer. I don’t want cancer. Lauren. Lauren. Lauren. I don’t want you to have cancer. No one wants that. She’s crying now. Hard. She pushes me away. She’s furious and confused and scared. We cry together for a long time. She’s still crying, but softer now. Mom, what color is it?
I know exactly what she means. The only person with cancer that Lauren knows is a teacher at school. Mrs. F. had breast cancer. Our family participated in some fundraisers. Claire started making and selling beaded bracelets and donating the money to Mrs. F’s family. Soon our whole family was making them, on the couch, watching TV together and making bracelets. Mrs. F. died. I know Lauren is asking me if she will die.
Are you asking me if you have pink cancer? She nods. No, you don’t have pink cancer. I see the slightest bit of relief on her face. What color do I have? Well, I tell her, there are lots of colors of cancer. You know that box of crayons we have at home? Not the one with 16 colors that you need for school, but the big box with the built-in sharpener, that one. Do you know that one? She nods again. Well, cancer comes in as many colors as there are in that box. She asks again. What color do I have? I’m not sure what to say. I want to say the color of the saddest feeling in your heart, the color of your world when it falls apart, the color that scares you the most. I punt. Lauren, what color would you say you have? She thinks, hmmm, probably blueish. Maybe green. No, blueish, she’s sure. I’m surprised she picks blue. It’s her favorite color. She only picks out blue sneakers. Her favorite outfit is a blue shirt, blue leggings, her blue shoes, and a blue headband. I wouldn’t have guessed blue cancer.
Blue huh? Yeah, she says. Mom, will I die? I’m trying hard not to cry now. Trying hard not to reveal my immense fear and dread. Lauren is pretty good at reading me. I feel like my head is see through and she will know the things she’s not ready to know. I worry she will see my worries and adopt them as her own. See, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, I’m a gifted worrier too. The thing is Lauren, and I look at her blanket and get an idea. The thing is, the doctors know the color of your cancer, but they don’t yet know the shade. Her fleece blanket is a gift from someone, and it’s tie-dye blue. Look at your blanket. You see all these shades of blue? The doctors need to figure out what shade of blue your cancer is, because they know the color, but they don’t know the shade. Everyone’s cancer is a different shade. What shade was Mrs. F’s? It was pink I tell her. A bright pink.
When the doctors figure out what shade your cancer is, they will know what medicine to give you. Mom? I don’t want cancer. I really don’t. I want to go home and not have cancer. I know honey. I hug her. That’s what I want too.
She’s quiet for a while. Does it have a name mom, the cancer? Rhabdomyosarcoma. I can barely get it out of my mouth. It feels foreign, vile, disgusting and I don’t want to say it. Lauren repeats it slowly and perfectly.
More quiet, then another question. Mom? Do you know why I got cancer? No, I don’t. I’ve been thinking about that same question too. And you know what I think Lauren? I don’t think you or I or dad will ever figure that out. I think, for our whole lives, we won’t ever be able to answer why you got cancer. You know what else I think? What’s that mom? I think that the only thing we can do now is to work on the how. Since we can’t know the why, let’s work on the how. Like how we help you get better. And how we figure out the shade. And how we get used to saying words like cancer and rhabdomyosarcoma. And how we show you how much we love you. We sit on the couch for a long time. The hospital bed scares her, and she wants to be close to me. For the rest of that hospital stay, we sleep huddled together on that blue vinyl couch.
Amy Graver currently works in the corporate world, and is a writer, a happy wife and mom of 4 kids. Her daughter Lauren was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma at age 7. Amy’s writing chronicles the journey on which cancer has taken her family. Lauren’s cancer diagnosis imposed a new reality and many challenges that turned their world upside down. Unexpectedly, but so very welcome, have been the silver linings that have emerged over the course of Lauren’s treatment and that still occur today. Amy is an enthusiast of US presidential history, she aspires to be a professional seashell collector, and is absurdly competitive about things that don’t matter.