07/30/2013 11:25 am ET Updated Sep 29, 2013

'Hey Kids, Daddy Had Cancer' and Other Non-Starters

We knew that one day we would have to talk to our three daughters about daddy's cancer -- what happened to him and how he was treated. This nuts and bolts discussion doesn't intimate me, I've been rehearsing it in my mind for the past four years. However, with each passing milestone both for my husband and my children, I am becoming acutely aware that we will need to talk to our daughters about way more than just their father's illness. Cancer has this unfortunate way of putting an indelible mark on so much more than just the patient -- and it is these more nuanced side effects of what daddy's cancer has meant to us as a family that has sent me searching for what to say and when to say it.

In the case of our eldest, now six, there is an ongoing discussion about trauma and its sequelae. She was only 18 months when her father was diagnosed and began treatment. She was at this challenging age where she was old enough to notice that something was amiss, especially since my husband was her primary caregiver at the time of his diagnosis, but she was also too young to have the necessary language and emotional skills to express her feelings or fully understand what was happening to the world around her. Four years later, we are beginning to see the true toll that this sudden trauma took on her emotional and social growth and we are working hard to help her through it.

Then there are the twins. Since infertility was a nice little side effect of my husband's treatment we turned to in vitro fertilization to expand our family. Third time was the charm and last spring we unexpectedly became pregnant with identical twin girls who are now 9 months old. In my mind, they were going to be the easy ones to talk to. We weren't really going to have to delve into too much detail since they never experienced their father's cancer firsthand. Somewhere in the excitement of pregnancy and then the delirium of sleep training I completely overlooked the fact that they will soon ask about their "twinness." A day doesn't go by that I am not asked, "are they twins?" ... "do twins run in your family?" and my personal favorite, "are they those kind of twins?" If you mean amazing miracle twins that my husband and I prayed for with each painful injection that served as a daily reminder of what cancer did to our family, then yes, they are those kind of twins.

I really don't mind the questions though. We felt that IVF was a continuation of my husband's treatment. As such, we have been open and honest to the questioning public about our trials and tribulations of infertility in order to highlight one of the significant challenges of young adult cancer. However, it is beginning to dawn on me that we will have to talk with our daughters about how they came into this world and the discussion will go well beyond the traditional birds and bees synopsis. This same conversation is happening on a regular basis around the world and we are hardly unique given the increase in artificial reproductive therapy; but, because they are multiples we may have to enter into this conversation a bit sooner than we would have liked and whether or not we will dovetail the whole "daddy had cancer" within the story remains a question mark. It will then be their story to share. What they would like others to know or not know about their "twinness" will be up to them. Just because we want them to be the poster children for hope after battling cancer as a young adult doesn't mean they will want to be part of our advocacy crusade and my husband and I will need to respect their choice.

I have no idea when we should have these made for TV movie conversations. People say that we will know when are daughters are ready, parental instinct will kick in. I am counting on that. In the meantime, I am trying to get more comfortable with the fact that when we finally do talk with them we will not have all the answers. What parent does? This is a hard realization for the Type A person I am but if cancer has taught me and my husband anything is that you never know what lies around the next corner and with each unexpected turn your support system is there to help guide the way.