Dear Kayla and Christopher: A Mom With Breast Cancer Documents Her Battle for Her 2 Young Children

Laura Bruck
Published: Tuesday, Mar 15, 2011
The Vances: (left to right) Christopher, Chris, Lisa, and KaylaIt was 2 days after her very first mammogram when Lisa Vance got a call from her physician’s office requesting that she come in to discuss the results. Even so, it never occurred to her to be worried. Instead, the 40-year-old mother of 2 was reassured by her physician’s assertion that he’d be “very surprised if it turned out to be anything at all.”

Lisa had undergone an initial lumpectomy and then another to obtain clear margins. Still relatively confident, she went alone to discuss the pathology results with her surgeon rather than having her husband, Chris, take a day off from the steel mill. But she soon questioned that decision. “I heard the word cancer, and that was it,” she recalled. “The rest was basically, ‘Blah, blah, blah.’”

What Lisa heard only vaguely in the din of her panic were the words “ductal carcinoma in situ” and “mastectomy.” Her relative calm now a distant memory, she recalled feeling like “a nervous wreck” and immediately started thinking the worst.

A Journal for Her Kids

Lisa’s thoughts turned to her husband and 2 young children, 3-year-old Christopher and 1-year-old Kayla. She knew that Christopher was old enough to at least understand that his mommy was sick and needed to go to the hospital to get better. But Kayla was just a baby and Lisa wondered how she could help her grasp what was about to happen.

Powered by what she now believes was a healthy dose of denial, Lisa picked up a journal and began to write to her children.

Dear Kayla and Christopher,

I just found out that I have to have a mastectomy. I’m really scared and don’t want to do this but I want to be here for you to see you grow up. I’m going to fight this. I’m strong and I can do this! I have support from my wonderful husband and my great family and friends. This is just another bump in the road.

While Lisa certainly is not the first mother to document a fight with cancer for her children, her reasons for doing so were somewhat unique. “I don’t think I started writing in anticipation of not being there for my kids,” she said. “Instead, I wanted them, especially Kayla, to understand at a later time what they couldn’t possibly understand at such a young age.”

Lightning Really Can Strike Twice

Still trying to catch her breath, Lisa, this time with her husband, Chris, arrived at the surgeon’s office to discuss her upcoming mastectomy and undergo preoperative testing. She said, “I was just starting to wrap my brain around what was about to happen in 2 weeks, but there’s no way I could have prepared myself for the next 2 minutes.”

Just as the nurse began to take Lisa’s vital signs, Chris, in what Lisa describes as an almost apologetic voice, began to complain of chest pains. Within hours, Chris was undergoing triple stent placement as Lisa sat in disbelief in the hospital’s surgical lounge. (A fourth stent was inserted just 4 weeks after Lisa’s mastectomy.)

Dear Kayla and Christopher,

Daddy was admitted to the hospital. The doctor said he had a heart attack and needs four stents in his heart! Kids, I’m so sorry you have to see Mommy and Daddy sick like this!

"In a strange way, Chris’ heart attack gave me something to focus on other than my own issues,” said Lisa, who immediately switched gears to resume her usual role as caregiver and nurturer. “I had 2 weeks to prepare for my mastectomy, but I also had a sick husband and a son who was absolutely devastated that his daddy couldn’t come home.”

Dear Christopher,

You’re taking this very hard. Your daddy is your best buddy and you don’t like to see him sick! It breaks my heart to see you cry but we’re going to make sure mommy and daddy get the best care and get better!

Will Mommy and Daddy Be OK?

To Kayla, the days that followed were much like any other, with the exception that many more family members were nearby to make a fuss over her. With 4 siblings each, Lisa and her husband had no shortage of family support. But Christopher was having a hard time dealing with the reality of his father’s hospitalization and his mother’s upcoming surgery. “He was a question machine,” said Lisa, who recalled a constant barrage of queries, such as, “Will mommy be OK?” and “Why is daddy sick?”

Lisa and her husband tried their best to answer each question honestly, and they took their cues from their son’s questions rather than sitting him down for a formal talk. Even so, Christopher seemed better able to comprehend his father’s situation than his mother’s. “Christopher could see that his daddy was sick,” said Lisa. “But Mommy just looked like Mommy to him, and it was hard for him to grasp some abstract concept about something that had yet to happen.”

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