I’m taking a much-needed break after several hours of hard digging in my yard, so I figured I’d tell you about the conversation I had with the boys last night. The three of us were lying in bed in the dark, having just finished our bedtime stories (the very best time for talking), when Austin asked, “Why do boys and girls get cancer?”

He’s never asked a question like this before, nothing even close. If he talks about cancer at all, it’s usually to ask about specifics: “When are we going to the hospital?” “Who will be our nurse?” “How many nights are we sleeping over?” For the most part, I think he just assumes cancer is a regular part of everyone’s life and is no more likely to wonder why it exists than he is wonder why we eat food each day.

So I saw this as a great opportunity and launched into my weeds-in-the-garden analogy. I didn’t make this one up, in fact I think Kelly Corrigan used it with her daughters in The Middle Place, but I have managed to add some extra layers to it. This was  how I explained cancer to Braedan’s class a few months ago when I visited at his request. (That afternoon quickly morphed into a discussion of gardening, with twenty eager little hands waving in the air to tell me about their experiences with weeds.)

Cancer is like a weed growing in your body, I explained to Austin. And how do you get a weed out of your garden? Well, you can dig it out, which is like surgery: doctors literally cut the cancer out of your body. (“With scissors?”) But you have to be careful when you dig a weed out of your garden not to take too much of the good stuff along with it and not to damage the roots of the other “good” plants that you want to grow there.  Same thing in your body: sometimes when you cut the cancer out, you end up removing or hurting some other part of your body that you actually need.

So what’s the other way to get weeds out of your garden? You can spray them with chemicals (this was really when the kindergarteners really got excited). But the chemicals can hurt the other plants nearby the weed you’re spraying. Just like chemo: a chemical that kills the bad stuff but kills the good stuff too (hair, of course, is the easiest example of “good stuff” for children).

So what happens if you just leave the weed there, let it do its thing? It spreads, winding its way through your garden, twisting and choking other healthy plants, potentially destroying everything in its path. Same, duh, with cancer.

One of Braedan’s classmates earnestly told me a story of how he and his grandmother worked really hard to dig the weeds out of her garden and they thought they got them all and then a few days later they came back. Ah ha, exactly! (A new dimension added to my analogy.) That’s just like with Austin’s cancer. We dug it out and sprayed it with nasty chemicals and thought we got it all and then weeks, months, years later, it reappeared!

I was all excited to share these bits of wisdom with Austin, but he interrupted me partway through and said, “Wait, but Mom, why do soccer players play baseball?”  Braedan and I stared at each other with raised eyebrows and then everyone devolved into a fit of giggles and thus ended my teachable moment.

Back to the garden . . .