A simple sunburn

When I went through radiation treatments after my mastectomy, a bright red burn appeared on my chest pretty quickly.  It spread from just below my neck to nearly my waist, and from my armpit to the center of my chest.  It was tender to the touch and, despite six daily applications of special radiation cream, began to peel and bleed.  It looked pretty gross for many weeks.

My little one, Widget (age 3), who is my constant companion, was not unaware of this development.  He knew that I went to radiation treatments every morning before breakfast (”where Mommy gets the light shined on her”), and that I had to stop to smear the “magic goop” on my chest a few times a day (at this age, a Mommy doesn’t even get to go to the bathroom by herself, so there was no way to really hide all this from him) and especially before I put him down to sleep at night.

I managed to hide the difficult reality of it when it began to peel and bleed from the scar, but he still knew that it hurt (i.e. the kids weren’t allowed to bounce on my chest/shoulder anymore, and we had to be careful when we cuddled) and that Mommy was very tired from the radiation during the last few weeks as well.  I reassured him, telling him “it’s just sunburn, sweetie.  It’s okay,” but now I think I may have done him a disservice.

Last week we went to the beach for a long-awaited vacation with our family and friends.  Despite cool temperatures and some overcast days, Widget remained firmly in his rashguard, hat, and sunglasses.  When I tried to take off the hat for a family picture, he cried and screamed, terrified that “me get sunburn!”


So, instead of allaying his fears of radiation therapy by comparing it to a simple sunburn, I guess I turned a simple sunburn into the effects of 7 weeks of daily radiation.


Once I realized my mistake, I worked to allay his fears, taking him out on the beach in the early morning and at sunset, and encouraging him to take off his sunglasses for a few minutes at a time then, when the sun wasn’t so harsh and bright.  But he kept them firmly attatched to his head, determined to be safe.

When Widget’s Daddy got a bit of a sunburn, I asked him leading questions about it in Widget’s presence, asking, “Does it hurt?  Have you ever had a sunburn before?  Do you think it will get better?” and we walked Widget through what a sunburn really means.  After several repetitions of this, I think it helped.

But I’m still at a loss.  What else can I do to help my little one enjoy being out in the sun again, coated with sunscreen, without hiding under a hat and sunglasses?

Crossposted at Mothers With Cancer.


17 Responses to A simple sunburn

  1. Susan K says:


    There are worse things than hiding under a hat and sunglasses… like skin cancer at age 30. The more important thing is to remove the fear -but not the caution. Daddy getting and surviving a sunburn is an excellent first step. There will be plenty of strangers with sunburns too that you can point out – see, he has one and he is laughing; see, she has one but is swimming anyway.

    We just survived two tornado warnings without our house being destroyed. That was an important lesson for my 7 year old. She had been terrified when she heard the dreaded words. But now I can say, “see, we had two warnings, we did the safe thing and went to the basement and everything was OK.”


  2. margaret says:

    What’s wrong with letting him run around with a hat and sunglasses? Just put sunscreen on him anyway and let him run around with the other items. When my girls were smaller, they always had a hat on and sometimes sunglasses. Now, I try to keep a hat/visor on them, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.

  3. Christy says:

    Ladybug is 2.5 yrs old and we still make her wear a hat and shades outside. I remember too many red arms and backs from my childhood to put her through that!

    Plus, her head is still rather bald. We like her to wear a hat whenever she’s outside, period.

    I realize that the problem is bothering you right now, but sunburn is something serious.
    Perhaps he has the right idea, minus the terror.

  4. Bon says:

    i am sorry for Widget’s terror, for what it implies, for how it makes you feel.

    but i think time and exposure will salve his fear…and in the meantime, the hat and sunglasses are a damn good idea anyway.

    he will be okay, Susan. he is an intuitive little fellow, and my guess is this is just something he needs to process in his own time.

    love to you.

  5. Tracy says:

    Since he knows that the burns you got were from lights, maybe you could let him know that the sunburn you had to get from fake sun is much worse than what people get from the one in the sky – or give him some idea how long he would have to sit in the sun to hurt as much as mommy did.

    My son is three, too, and I find that when I arm him with basic, factual info in the face of his fears, he comes back to me and repeats it when he’s reassuring himself, often days later. Every time I think he can’t possibly process what I’m saying, he surprises me. You may in fact hear your conversation with your husband come back around one day soon.

    Also, he loves and trusts you, so the fears he is exploring (which several people have reassured me recently are totally normal for this age) will abate, because he ultimately knows you will always do your best to keep him out of harm’s way.

  6. NoRegrets says:

    Be easy on yourself. Your son will be fine.

  7. Randi says:

    I have never had to deal with cancer, nor the aftereffects that it would cause on a family, but I do know children, and your son will be fine. He’s at such a young age that within a year or two he will not even remember why he was scared of the sun. My advice? Ignore it entirely. Let him wear the sunscreen and the glasses and the hat, ect. Eventually he’ll get hot and take them off and will run around not too worried. Then you’ll be chasing HIM around to get sunscreen on him!

  8. Oh, yes, Whymommy, I agree with everyone who said that Widget will be FINE, you did nothing wrong. You were just trying to explain something to him in an age-appropriate way that he could relate to, and understand.

    I’m sure that once you differentiate between the radiation “light” and the sun’s rays, he will, in time, relax. In the meantime, your instincts to protect him with hat, sunscreen, shades and a shirt are great habits for him to develop at such a young age!

    My girls all know to “slip, slap, slop!” before we go outside in summer… Slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, and slop on the sunscreen! And now, we add a good, hefty SQUIRT of bug spray, too!

    Hope you are having a wonderful, relaxing time together! Thinking of you, as always, and sending much love– CGF xo

  9. Margaret R. says:

    There is something terribly, terribly upsetting about a child’s fears, whatever the fear. I think it’s because we work so hard to give our children a happy childhood, and it comes as a big shock to learn that we can’t protect them entirely from fear because fear has no part, we think, in a happy childhood. It’s even worse when we realize that we’re the one who created the fear in the first place. And we’ve all done it, usually in a necessary effort to keep kids safe– from bad people, from moving cars, from unfriendly dogs, whatever.

    Maybe the trick is to realize that we all had fears, too, as children, even those of us who had the happiest possible childhood. Children are small and powerless and they don’t know very much about the world– and, more to the point, they know these things about themselves. So there’s really no way to eliminate fear from childhood entirely. If it’s not sunburn they’re afraid of, it’s the big scary dog next door, or the monster under the bed.

    Or something not scary at all. When I was pregnant with my first child, I decorated his nursery with an undersea theme, and I made a bunch of brightly colored paper-mache fish to hang from his ceiling. So it sort of broke my heart when he was two and got to be afraid of those fish I had labored over for so many months. Every night, for two weeks, he would come into our room and say, plaintively, “That little green fish is looking mean at me,” or “I’m afraid of the big orange fish,” and my husband would go into his room, climb up on a chair, and take down the offending fish. Soon, all those fish were packed away in the attic.

    With all this good advice you’re getting, Widget will move beyond his fear of getting a sunburn. But by then he’ll probably be afraid of something else, and you’ll feel just as sad and worried about that. But he’ll be fine. You’re teaching him to face his fears and sort them out, and he’ll be fine.

  10. Mama DB says:

    Two years ago I found a spot on my leg and went into the dermatologist. It was melanoma in situ. My mother used to take us to the beach most Summer weekends and we never used enough sun protection. Scary stuff.

    I think it is good to be cautious and explain that a hat and sunglasses are always a good idea. You are right to want to reduce the fear but caution is always good.

    I know this wasn’t the point of the post but I did want to ease your anxiety about not wanting to have the kids worry over these kinds of things. You did a good job of explaining Daddy’s sunburn. Keep at it.

  11. deb says:

    They’re so literal, little kids. When my son was about four, he was sick with a “bug”. He vomited and had diarrhea. A few days later as we sat in the kitchen watching our cat try to catch a fly, my son said, “Good thing Harry not catch fly, he get sick.” Because it was a “bug”.

    It happens. Your son will survive and hopefully it will be a funny story you can all tell when he’s grown up.

    Hope you had a wonderful holiday.

  12. tracey says:

    Sigh… yet another side effect of cancer, eh?

    At least this is one that will protect him from dangerous UV rays. It’s actually good, IMHO, to be afraid of the sun. The sun IS dangerous. Most people don’t have enough respect for it.

    But I sure do hope he can understand the difference between Mommy’s burn and Sunburn…

  13. Dawn says:

    I was going to say the same thing – there are worse things than kids who don’t get overexposed to the sun 🙂

    He’ll get it eventually. 🙂

  14. whymommy says:

    Margaret R — so true!

    Widget certainly has had his nights where he feared “the airplanes” that decorate(d) his wall, and we took them down, and put them up, and he grew out of it.

    It’s so hard to know what to do some days, but your words (all of you) make a lot of sense. Thank you.

  15. One thing I wonder about is if you explain that your treatment burnt so bad because there was no “sunscreen” you could use for that, but lucky we can use sunscreen to stop us getting sunburn when we’re on the beach? I agree with the people who said it’s no bad thing to have a child who wants to wear a hat and glasses, but it’s not nice to think of him having such fear.

  16. JoC says:

    I hear you. Hard to see fear of something that happened to you effecting him. That said, my 3 year old son is obsessed with “sun cream” right now and upset with bright sun eventhough we have rarely seen it this spring…

  17. ilinap says:

    A hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses aren’t such a bad idea. I wish my husband were more like Widget. He’ll learn to love playing in the sun. More importantly, he’ll learn how to do it responsibly. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

    And by the way, I’m participating in the Race for the Cure on Saturday, my first ever. I’m doing it in your honor. I think the link I sent to my contacts put everyone into donation mode. I’ll be thinking of you!


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