12-year-old Zak posed the question, ‘Mummy, why did you get cancer?’ nine weeks and two days after my operation.
Where to begin? It’s difficult enough making sense of traumatic life events as an adult, but to a child, it can be even harder.
My partner and I noticed subtle and obvious changes in Zak’s behaviour that began to raise alarm bells.
First, it was the persistent inquiries regarding germs.
Zak would close toilet doors with an outstretched sleeve, study labels on food products checking for expiry dates, scrutinise food for any perceived blemish or imperfection, and spit indiscriminately for no apparent reason.
There was also the inability to just settle and drift off to sleep.
Each night a string of ‘urgent’ requests would often appear.
It seemed he had developed a slight obsession with his own health, stressing over any and every sign of illness, from a blister to a cough.
He would ask when they would go away, or if they ever would!
One night, while preparing dinner together, I asked him why he kept spitting.
He replied, ‘Germs’.
I told him our bodies were well equipped to deal with germs, and certainly, in the instance of dirt, a little bit doesn’t hurt.
‘Even if it does go into your mouth, you can just rinse your mouth out with water, or have a drink,’ I said.
‘Exposure to a bit of dirt helps make our immune system stronger,’ I added.
I continued reeling out all things public health until he interrupted, and the conversation abruptly ended with the following, ‘I don’t want to get cancer.’
Utterly shocked, I responded that he couldn’t catch cancer from germs.
‘It can’t be spread from one person to another,’ I explained.
‘You can get it as a result of a complex mix of things, such as exposure to certain chemicals, your genes, nutrition (or lack thereof), but you can’t catch cancer,’ I said.
‘So why did you get cancer?’ he asked.
I decided it was time to turn off the frying pan.
Pausing momentarily, I silently prayed I could do justice to this simply worded, innocent question.
I wondered if I would be able to quell his fears and say the right thing and responded with great trepidation.
In my case, I explained, I felt it to be a combination of many things and began recounting the past 12 months – moving back from the UK, starting not one but two new jobs in that new year, Dad being away four stints in that year, Granny having a heart attack, a family member’s ill health, . . . .
On reflection, perhaps I shouldn’t have spouted out all those things, but I was so determined to steer his mind away from the germ focus and wanted to be as open and honest as possible.
‘Well I have stress in my life too,’ he responded.
This was not going to be an easily resolved conversation.
The more I said, the more I sank.
Trying to impart my 40 + year old wisdoms, life philosophies, worldview and rationale for the cancer may have spoken volumes to me, but to Zak, I could have been speaking another language.
He could only absorb ideas from his point of reference, that of a boy with a total of 12 years of experience.
Before addressing his stresses and stressors, I began discussing social, emotional, physical and nutritional contributors to cancer.
Cancer had become known as a ‘lifestyle’ disease with an array of complex causes.
It could really symbolise disease at multiple levels.
But despite my efforts, my words sounded like ‘blah, blah, blah’ falling deaf even to my ears.
It’s one thing to lecture to a bunch of Health Science students, but it’s quite another to answer your own son with his innocent gaze looking into your heart and soul.
I asked him to outline his stresses, to which he responded, ‘Insufficient chill-out time in front of the TV, being persistently reminded to practice piano and walking the dog.’
He even went to the trouble of recounting the last time he had done so when a very excited Rufus had discovered a trail of half-eaten bagels on the other side of the park rendering him deaf to Zak’s calls of distress.
Looking back, I am more able to understand what it was which he could not express.
At the young age of 12, he had to confront the fact that his mum was a mortal being, that we are all mortal beings.
Thinking about all the fear residing within his slight, young frame filled me with such sorrow.
Today, I pray he will always be loved deeply and enjoy peace in his inner world, enough to weather the pockets of turbulence that may arise from time to time.
Ros Ben-Moshe was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 43.
Author, Wellbeing consultant and mother of two boys, age 12 and 15, Ros found writing about her experience therapeutic and healing and wanted to share her story.