2013 Changemaker: Katy Tessman Stanoch

‘Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden’

A book for children to understand a mother’s cancer treatment.

Photos courtesy of Katy Tessman Stanoch

A nursing mother expects to leak a little milk onto her clothes, haul a breast pump to and from work, and lift her shirt in public once in a while because the baby needs to eat now. One thing a nursing mother rarely anticipates is having to deal with the trauma of breast cancer.

“That was completely unfair,” said Katy Tessman Stanoch, a Minnetonka mother. She was 39 and still nursing her younger son when she had her first mammogram and learned she had breast cancer. She underwent a double mastectomy on her 40th birthday.

“The bright side?” she said, “My son was 3 years old. Nutritionally, it was OK. It was more the emotional part. We had saved [the nursing] for the end of the day. Being struck down with surgery and chemotherapy was a huge disruption to our family.”

Stanoch struggled to find ways to explain her illness and upcoming surgery to her two boys, Louis, age 6, and Maxwell, age 3, at the time. As she waited for her chemotherapy treatments, she searched the bookshelves, but didn’t find any titles aimed at young children. They were for teenagers or had extremely long narratives.

A songwriter and a gardener, and buoyed by the support of her husband, family and friends, she decided to write a book for young children herself. She quickly resorted to metaphor, comparing the spots of cancer in her breast to unwelcome weeds that needed to be pulled.

Louis understood right away, she said. “And you know how a younger child looks to the older child to understand. Is Louis upset, then I’m upset. Is Louis OK, then I’m OK,” Stanoch said about Maxwell.

Stanoch teaches early childhood music and has spent a lot of time volunteering in her boys’ school. “I understand how when a kid asks a question, you don’t give a really long answer. I have experience communicating with kids.”

And it shows. Stanoch’s tender story, “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden,” is a gentle conversation between two young boys. In simple vocabulary, the older child explains to the younger child what’s happening to their mother and talks about ways to brighten up their lives, such as singing silly songs.

Stanoch hopes families will be inspired to sing their own silly songs, or at least “get a conversation going about silly songs.”

In her two years of treatment and recovery, she said, “I was writing [the book] by living it.” She spent another nine months putting words on paper, and soliciting feedback from friends and family.

Jessica Bailey, an artist and recent graduate of Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts in New York City, donated her talents for the book project. Her childlike, full-color art takes a scary subject and softens its harsh edges.

A group of fifth-graders from Elk River Girl Scout Troop 13048 earned their Bronze Award last summer by organizing a community service project to benefit women fighting breast cancer. They raised $500 and donated 15 copies of Stanoch’s book to the Hope Chest Breast Center at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale.

“Most of our girls have been personally touched by cancer,” said Danielle Saterlee, one of two troop leaders, “and I think we grew to understand that almost everyone has been personally touched by cancer in some way.”

Stanoch, meanwhile plans to offer readings combined with crafts and songs for parents and children. She hopes young families dealing with breast cancer will “take our personal journey and make it their own.”


Katy Tessman Stanoch has partnered with Hope Chest for Breast Cancer to distribute copies of “Our Mama is a Beautiful Garden” to hospitals and clinics that serve women and families fighting breast cancer. You can order or donate a copy through Stanoch’s website: www.rhythmelodic.com/mamasgarden