When I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I didn’t know where to turn. I was 32 years old, and my son had just turned two. We lived in a new town, knew almost no one, and felt unbelievably overwhelmed. Parenting a toddler is difficult under the best of circumstances, but we often felt like we were drowning - drowning in the regular challenges of parenting, drowning in the regular challenges of advanced cancer, drowning in the unique challenges of dealing with both at the same time.
The emotional impact of metastatic breast cancer
Now, I am nearly 20 months into my diagnosis, and my son is three and a half. In some ways, I find so much joy in the fact that I am still here, still able to parent, still able to function in many normal ways. I can take my little boy to the pool, to the park, and go on hikes, but I also struggle with immense physical and mental fatigue, and treatments continue to take a toll on me. On the other hand, when I think of all the life, all of the milestones that I will likely miss, I feel overwhelmed with anger and sadness. I struggle with the understanding that my son will, in all likelihood, grow up without a mother. However, because of the networks I have created, the support systems I have forged, and the pieces of my legacy I have created, my son will be ok. He will have an incredible amount of love and support for his entire childhood and throughout his adulthood. He will have pieces of my life and my memory as ways to anchor his own memories of me, and of our lives together. As difficult as it feels to recognize, I am irreplaceable, but not essential to his upbringing.
A new bedtime routine
Recently, my son has stopped napping during the day. This means that by bedtime, he is utterly exhausted and ready to crawl into bed. Lately, I have been lying down with him, telling him stories as he holds my hand, and his breathing slows into the rhythmic cadence of sleep. As a young infant, I was always reticent to fall asleep with him, fearful of the bad habits it might create. He was a difficult sleeper, and I found solace in routines, finding order in the midst of chaos. Now, I have found myself releasing those bindings, and embracing our new routines. Freed from the constraints, I recognize his - and my - need for that time of closeness and quiet.
Being a mother with metastatic breast cancer
So often, as mothers, we are told to enjoy every moment because our children grow up too fast. Too soon, we are out of the fresh, sleepless newborn days, navigating first teeth, first steps, and first days of school. Motherhood is a concurrent nostalgia for the opportunity to step back into the past, knowing what we know in the present, and the anticipation for the promises of futures unknown. But how do you parent knowing that the nostalgia you feel for the beautiful moments that have passed fall impossibly short compared to the nostalgia for the future moments you likely will never see? I struggle to reconcile the fact that my son will likely live a large part of his life without a mother. Yet, I have also had to wrestle with the fact that, no matter what, the time I have is never enough. Time is an enemy I hold close.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Sunday, March 29, 2020, Emily Garnett passed away. We know that Emily's advocacy efforts continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.
How old were you when you were diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer?