How to explain chemo to a 9-year-old

My husband Pete, who’s an editor, has always been good at metaphors. He does him self proud a couple nights ago, while we are all sitting at dinner.

“So you know Mommy’s going to start chemo soon?” he says.

The kid pushes her ramen noodles around in her bowl. She would live completely on starch if we let her.

“Well, you know when you put a blue sock into a load of whites? What happens?”

“The blue from the socks gets all over the white stuff.”

“Right. Then what do you do to get the blue out?”

“You use bleach.”

“Right. And do you bleach some things, or everything?”

“Everything. Except the sock!”

“Right. Well that’s kind of what’s going to happen to Mommy. They’ve taken the sock out, the cancer. But they want to make sure that none of the blue stays inside her. So they’re going to use strong drugs, kind of like bleach, to clean her whole system.”

“OK,” the kid says. “Can we talk about my day, now?”

I’ve never thought about myself as a load of laundry, but it works.


About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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3 Responses to How to explain chemo to a 9-year-old

  1. Dick Guthrie (Tio) says:

    Brilliant metaphor, just brilliant.

  2. Heather: Yes, that was a great metaphor to explain things to your daughter. I’m in a high risk group myself and try not to think about what the annual mammogram and MRI might dictate for the future. Here’s to another 20 years with Pete and a bunch more adventures on the high seas and elsewhere.

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