Battling cancer is a traumatic experience for the patient and their loved ones, regardless of age. Have you ever thought about what it is like to be a child with a mother battling breast cancer? Here lies a recollection by two young adults, DJ Reed and Emma De Suyrot, about what it was like to be a 7 or 8 year-old with a mother who is battling breast cancer. 

Today, DJ is 21 and Emma is 20. Both are college juniors studying in Boston, MA. DJ is a New Yorker, through and through, while Emma is French-Japanese and was raised in Dubai, UAE. DJ and Emma may have lived worlds apart before becoming friends in college, but their mothers’ breast cancer experiences are parallel to one another.  

In 2007, Madonna, DJ’s mother, was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer at age 38. Madonna routinely visited her doctor in New York for a mammogram because her own mother had breast cancer in her 50’s and lung cancer in her 60’s. Approaching one of her yearly mammograms, Madonna felt a lump in her breast and thought it “perfect timing” for her appointment, said DJ. 

Recent photo of DJ Reed with his mother Madonna.

DJ said that because Madonna was “young enough to handle more aggressive measures,” she did a double mastectomy in New York to get rid of the cancer. After this, Madonna was treated with chemotherapy for 6 months and took tamoxifen – a hormone therapy used to treat breast cancer and reduce the risk of recurrence – for 5 years to prevent the cancer’s return. While DJ’s parents didn’t hide his mother’s cancer from him or his year-younger brother Roman, the revelation is not clear in his mind as he was only 8 years old at the time. “I don’t remember the exact conversation, but I definitely could understand certain cues … that the situation was not normal,” said DJ.

Similarly, In 2007, Emma’s mother Keiko, 44, noticed a lump in one of her breasts and headed over to her doctor in Dubai, UAE to get it checked out. Just like Madonna, Keiko’s mother had a rough history with cancer – lung, colon, uterus and kidney cancer. However, because Keiko’s mother had different types of cancers, Emma said that Keiko doesn’t believe there is a genetic link and never tested to see if there is one.  

Recent photo of Emma De Suyrot with her mother Keiko.

Diagnosed with DCIS breast cancer, Keiko did a mastectomy in Japan to remove the cancer, and had her breast entirely reconstructed with silicon in France before taking tamoxifen for 2 years. Unlike Madonna, Keiko chose to hide her cancer from Emma, Emma’s twin sister Anastasia, and her year-younger sister Elisa. However, Keiko’s plan to shield her girls from her situation did not go as intended… 

One day, Emma and her sisters overheard their mother speaking in Japanese on the phone about having “gan.” At the time, Emma had no idea that gan meant cancer in Japanese and so she went around school telling all her friends and classmates that her mom had gan. Knowing what it meant, her friends repeated this to their mothers and their mothers called Emma’s mother. Overwhelmed, Emma’s mother said to Emma, “‘Wait, what the hell? I never told you this, how do you know?’” recalled Emma. 

Neither Emma nor DJ watched their mothers suffer greatly. Keiko and Madonna tried their best to protect their kids from their pain. Because Keiko was treated far from home, it was much easier for her to mask her hardships from Emma and her other two girls. Treated at home in New York, Madonna didn’t have the luxury to hide her situation for her boys and had to make a more active effort to shield them from her pain. “I just remember sometimes I would go into a room and her voice was just weak compared to her normal,” said DJ, “but I was never in the room for those [painful] moments.”

While DJ doesn’t recall his mother leaning on him or his brother for comfort, he does remember that her friends proved to be a great support system. “My dad actually made a calendar of all my mom’s friends, what days they’d be coming in to pick me up from school,” said DJ. “My mom was definitely happy that she had… so many friends who were willing to take care of me and help me with my homework or whatever I needed.”

Both DJ and Emma were unaware of what breast cancer was or what it did to a person before their mothers got breast cancer. Even then, as children, they couldn’t fully grasp the gravity of the disease. “I think I was still too young to take it in,” said Emma, “also, as a kid, you don’t know what cancer does to you and how it affects your family.” 

Although DJ didn’t really know what cancer was either, he does remember that “[he] was sort of coming to terms with mortality and the idea that [he] would pass away one day.” DJ said his understanding and fear of death “sort of shaped the way [he] felt about [his] mom because [he] was like ‘Oh my God if that’s possible she could pass away.’”

It’s hard to remember how you felt as a child, but, for some reason, it’s easier to remember what you see. Madonna and Keiko may have managed to hide their tears from their children, but they weren’t able to hide their scars. DJ remembered seeing purple scars on his mother’s stomach from her reconstructive surgery and said, “I just wanted to let her know that she was still beautiful, even though she had the scars.” Just like DJ, Emma noticed her mother’s physical differences while they were taking a bath. Emma remembers looking at her mother’s breasts post-surgery and thinking, “why is that one different than the other?” 

Both DJ and Emma don’t remember much from the time and had to refer to their mothers for details, but it’s interesting how similar what they do remember is. While 2007 may not seem like that long ago, cancer has definitely become more widely spoken about, researched, and taught since. Cancer has increased significantly, but I expect today’s parents to be just as protective as parents in 2007. 

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