Book Review: When Mama Had Cancer

Cancer is big and scary. It’s a challenge to the whole family. It’s nearly impossible for adults to comprehend. It can be even more so bewildering and terrifying to children.

Author Marjorie Kunch writes about her own Stage 3b breast cancer diagnosis in this calm, comforting story for young children. The book is written to help them understand what cancer is, how it is treated, and how it affects the patient, who is, in this case, both the author and the mother in the book.

A Journey of Faith and Spiritual Healing

The story is told from the point of view of a young child, who is a universal “I” first-person narrator and an unnamed preschool boy. He is identified through photographs, which are given a watercolor wash to create a soft, muted feel. The child’s voice is the voice of wisdom and explanation. He informs the reader that scary emotions resulting from bad news are “normal . . . no matter what age you are.”

He then goes on to explain that cancer is abnormal cell growth that will make a person sick. Surgical wounds gets a bandage “like I get when I scrape my knee,” and it cannot be transmitted like catching a cold.

The child-narrator provides a point of identification for young readers who, through this story, will learn that they and their family are not alone in experiencing the upheaval that cancer afflicts upon an entire family. The text addresses ways Orthodox Christians in particular can approach this trial — in our prayer corner, by visiting a monastery, by being anointed with holy oil, and by asking for help from the Theotokos and Saints Nektarios, Luke the Physician, and John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco.

The book notes that children can help an ill loved one. The young people in the story hug their Mama, read quietly to her when she is napping, bring her applesauce and water, and even learn how to call 9-1-1 just in case. (They didn’t ever need to make the call.)

A parent who is reading this book, which is told through a child’s eyes, can help a son or daughter also learn ways to help his or her family navigate the trial of cancer through activities, such as making a calendar to count down chemotherapy sessions and practicing important phone calls. The story also helps children know what to expect when a parent experiences treatment side effects, such as hair loss, fatigue, and nausea.

Understanding the End

The all-too-real possibility of death is addressed with compassion and a delicate touch. If cancer does not go away, Kunch writes, “it will not be their fault, your fault, the doctor’s fault, the priest’s fault, or even God’s fault.”

Death is a time “to join the Heavenly Kingdom,” and the author reminds us of our connection to our deceased loved ones through prayer and Soul Saturdays.

This is a beautiful book on a heart-wrenching subject, and fit ills a real need in children’s literature. By profession, I am a public librarian. And as much as I personally appreciate the Orthodox focus of this book,  I also wish it was not quite so specific regarding Orthodox religious practices because the book is an important topic for everyone, for families of all faiths. And there are just not enough books written for young children in this area.

All the same, I’ll buy a copy for my Catholic friends experiencing this trial, and I am confident it will likewise be a blessing to them. I thank the author for her courage and humility in sharing her experiences. Her ability to explain complicated topics with a childlike simplicity is a real gift.

I also appreciate the resources section of this book, which includes, a list of encouraging Bible verses, a Glossary, and a very helpful two-page blank lined section for recording individual notes. I recommend this book for all parish libraries and to all parents and friends. With Marjorie Kunch’s book, we can talk openly about “the big C” with children of all ages.


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Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a…
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