Katie Clarke was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction at NorthShore Glenbrook Hospital, followed by four months of chemotherapy and a year-long course of Herceptin treatments at Evanston Hospital.
Before her own diagnosis, and in memory of her best friend who lost her own life to the disease in 2006, Katie and her family would make a point of cheering on the participants of the three-day breast cancer walk in Chicago armed with motivational signs and licorice. This, and her own breast cancer journey, would later inspire Katie and her sister to found The Licorice Project, an organization devoted to spreading joy during a difficult time and bringing together breast cancer patients, survivors, families and friends.
In part two of her NorthShore patient story, Katie shares one of the most difficult but important moments following her breast cancer diagnosis:
I’m often asked, “How and when did you tell your kids you had breast cancer?” My husband and I agreed that we wanted to be open and truthful about everything as soon as my diagnosis was confirmed. We turned to my breast surgeon, Dr. David Winchester at NorthShore University HealthSystem, for advice on what to say to our three middle school-aged boys. We planned a family meeting and decided that I would do the talking.
I began the conversation by telling them that I’d found a lump in my chest, to which my youngest shouted, “You’re pregnant!?” When I said, “No,” he answered, “Phew!” I told them that the lump was in my breast and they wanted to know immediately if it was cancer. When I said that it was, they all began to cry. It broke my heart to see them so sad and frightened. Holding their hands, I assured them that the doctors were very encouraged and had given me a good prognosis since the lump was very small and I had caught it early. I explained to them that there would be many steps, tests and procedures. I explained that it would take time and patience but that when I finished the therapy, I would be okay. Of course, many questions followed:
“Are you going to die?” “Will you lose your hair?” “Will you get a wig?” “Who knows about this already?” “Can we tell people?” “What should we say?” “Does this mean we can get breast cancer?” “Are people going to bring us dinners?”
My husband and I answered the questions as best as we could, which, of course, led to even more questions. Since school was about to end for summer vacation, we assured the boys that all their summer plans would stay intact. We wanted to keep their lives as “normal” as possible. The family meeting concluded with lots of hugs and kisses.
Telling our children that I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do; however, it was also one of my proudest moments because of the strength and composure that I maintained during such a difficult conversation. There’s no right or wrong way to explain a cancer diagnosis to children. Each family will deal with it in their own unique way and to the best of their ability.