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.