One of the sometimes ignored areas of cancer is the effect it can have on children.
I remember the day my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor called her at home on the weekend to give her the terrible news. She was both angry and sad and I did not know how to cope. She cried and yelled and I stood there, frozen in time, unable to find the words to help her. I tried to hug her and whisper words like “there is a reason for everything, maybe this is God’s way of giving you a message.” But she turned from me and fled the room.
She drove herself to radiation every day and suffered through five years of Tamoxifen. Breast cancer changed my mother in a seemingly irreparable way and our relationship never quite mended. I felt left out, alone, and scared. I felt forgotten. She was diagnosed sometime around 1989, and at that time, there wasn’t a lot of cancer talk like there is today. I can think of two times that she talked out loud about her disease:
1. I made it to my five year mark! There are no signs of cancer.
2. Tamoxifen is the worst drug. I hate it. If doctors ever tell you to take it, don’t do it.
On the morning that I received my own diagnosis, I immediately panicked. As my husband held me and as I sobbed and trembled, the thought of my children passed through my mind. At that moment, I didn’t know if I was dying soon. I thought of my smart, beautiful, funny children growing up without me. Who would tell them “That shirt doesn’t match those pants, sometimes you have to be a slave to fashion” and “You actually need to use toothpaste to brush your teeth” and “I don’t care if you didn’t make that mess. Clean it up. I didn’t wear all that underwear, but I sure did wash it and fold it.”
I began to worry about telling them what was going on. My husband and I knew that we had to tell them, but I didn’t want to break their little hearts. We sat them down in the living room and my husband began to speak. I just sat there and cried. He had all the right words to say and my children held me and hugged me, which felt wonderful and sad and made me cry harder.
Birthdays were coming up and I told my husband that I really wanted to make sure we celebrated no matter how I felt. I have distinct memories of my birthdays being non-events after my mom’s diagnosis. I didn’t want my children to have memories of that awful birthday when my mom had cancer.
When I was recovering in the hospital from mastectomy surgery, my sister-in-law brought the kids by to visit. They walked in quietly and when they saw me, I knew I must look awful. Their faces looked panicked. I couldn’t hug them because I was in so much pain. I was also a little foggy because of the pain meds. Mercifully, they left quickly.
When my hair began to fall out, I began covering my head. I didn’t want them to know that it was happening. When I was officially bald, I tried to make sure they never saw my head uncovered. I told my husband that I didn’t want them to remember me hairless.
As the months went by and chemotherapy took its toll on my body, my children definitely noticed the decline in my health. Up to this point, I had been STRONG, confident mom. Now, I was reduced to toddler state, unable to climb the stairs without huffing and puffing, unable to eat normally, unable to focus on helping with homework. I was a delicate shell of my former I-Can-Do-Everything self. But slowly, something wonderful unfolded. My children would not come in my vicinity without offering careful hugs and light kisses. My oldest son, a middle school student, the smartest boy in the world, the child who cannot follow directions or work as a team player, morphed into a caring sweet boy who was concerned about his mom. We had a bit of a troubled past–his soul yearned to be an only child, but I gave him siblings. His Kindergarten teacher was Yours Truly, and when he was sent to the principal’s office and asked why he was behaving so poorly, he answered, “I don’t like sharing my mom.” When we moved to Texas in 2006, he hated us for taking him from his California home in the mountains. He and I suffered in our struggling relationship, and there were many heated moments where one or both of us ended up in tears.
Cancer tried to break me when my mother was diagnosed and came back to try again. Cancer slightly succeeded this time as it broke my body. My hair fell out, my nails lifted, I gained weight, I became weak, food tasted weird, hot flashes nearly drove me insane, I lost my breasts, and my brain decided to take a break. Cancer also offered the opportunity to realize that I am supported by amazing friends and co-workers. Cancer gave me and my husband a whole new way to play our roles as husband and wife. Cancer gave me a do-over with my precious children.