Stories of Hope
A Mother’s Garden Cultivates Understanding
Article date: October 1, 2001
Teachers are always thinking about kids.
Children Deal with Their Mom’s Cancer Thanks to a Story
“Teachers are always thinking about kids,” says Donna Bianco, a breast cancer survivor and special education teacher in Westchester County, N.Y. So it seemed natural that Bianco write a story to explain to her own children that she had breast cancer.
At the time she was diagnosed her son was nine and her daughter was five.
“My daughter saw the surgical drain that I had in for about a week and began to act cranky and oppositional,” says Bianco. “I didn’t put two and two together until she had a real meltdown.”
“When I asked her what was wrong,” Bianco tells ACS News Today, “my daughter said, ‘You are bleeding, Mommy!’ It was then that I realized that what she was imagining was much worse than the reality of my illness,” says Bianco. “So I sat my children down and drew a story about my breast cancer.”
“It was the best thing I could have done for my children,” she says. “It didn’t take away the fear but it gave them a way to talk about it.”
In Mom’s Garden: A Healing Story, Bianco writes from her daughter’s perspective. “Everyone gets sick sometimes, and then they get better. Every kid knows that. But my mom did not get better. She was tired and worried and she just didn’t look like herself. I noticed she wasn’t going to her exercise class and that she was having lots of friends cook our dinners. She didn’t seem to have time to be with me or help me with my homework.
“Then one night she fell asleep without helping me with a really important science fair project. I had a meltdown. Why was she so tired all the time and why didn’t she look like herself? I told my dad and my brother that I was not going to school or to my skating lessons or anywhere because my mom was too tired to care about me.
“Believe it or not, mom knew that I really didn’t mean what I said. She wasn’t mad, even though I woke her up with my speech. That’s when she took out some markers and paper and drew me a story.”
In Bianco’s drawings there is a weed-choked garden inside the mother. The weeds are breast cancer, and she takes chemotherapy to kill the weeds. Bianco also drew a radiation machine, to zap the weeds with a ray of light, and when the weeds were gone she’d be her old self again.
“Mom seemed to be pretty confident about all of this and it made me relax a little,” says her daughter, who accompanies her mother to some chemotherapy and radiation treatments. “Everything she said was true, and that made me feel better. I watched TV in the waiting room while [Mom] was zapped. It took a long time for Mom’s garden to be okay…I was actually glad when she started nagging me about my book reports.”
“Now my mom still gets checked for weeds in her garden, but I don’t worry about it much anymore. Since then we have planted lots of flowers in our real garden. Mom says she has a beautiful garden inside and out.”
May 2001 was the two-year mark for Bianco’s diagnosis. "By telling my children, it gave me the courage to be able to speak about my cancer to elementary school students. I think I am more sensitive to the concerns and worries of children because I saw firsthand how a disease could impact the lives of my own children.”
Bianco says when she was in the hospital a social worker told her about the American Cancer Society (ACS). She contacted the ACS before she left the hospital. “I needed them right away, “ she says. “I needed their computers, I needed their resources, I needed their kindness.”
The ACS put her in touch with a Reach to Recovery volunteer who also had navigated diagnosis, treatment choices, and other issues Bianco now faced. “I am still finding the ACS a valuable resource,” she says. “Now that I am done with my treatment I can find ways to help others who are faced with cancer.” This year she is her school district’s Making Strides team captain and will be walking Oct. 14.