An adult bird looks down at a nervous baby bird under its wing

Single Parenting MBC Series - Metastatic Parenting

Living with a terminal cancer diagnosis has its own challenges. When you add single parenting and explaining your diagnosis to your children to the equation, you are looking at one of the hardest burdens a parent has to experience. Two of our AdvancedBreastCancer.net advocates truthfully share their experiences as single parents living with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer and what co-parenting looks like, how they discuss cancer to their children, and the legacies they are leaving behind for their kids. This article is the second in our single parenting series, you can read more about single parenting and what dating looks like, in our Dating Edition. Here is a look at the questions we explored with April and Danielle.

1. How are you leaving behind a legacy and preparing for future milestones for your children?
2. How have you explained your diagnosis to your child/children?
3. How have you dealt with co-parenting?
4. What advice would you give another single parent that was newly diagnosed with MBC? Are there resources or programs for mothers/single parents living with terminal cancer?

Advocate Danielle Illustration

Small tokens to remind them I am still there

This is a great question! I take a lot of candid pictures and random videos. My goal is to complete them all into something special for each child. I also bought them a hardshell travel suitcase and stickers of the places we have been together. If it comes to do it one day, when I am getting life prepared to go on without me, I plan on having a birthday card for each them for every year with a new sticker inside, and a $10 bill for them to put toward something fun. I am also hoping to hand make each child a rice sock with lavender and essential oils, so when they aren’t feeling well or can’t sleep they have a part of their Mama with them as a comfort. Another thing I have done is purchased each kid a hardcover of Edgar Allen Poe’s Complete Tales and Works. I received my first copy at age sixteen and inscribed each copy for each child to read on their sixteenth birthday. At Christmas, I want them each to have a new ornament, too. My hope is that one day when they are adults they will have pieces of me to have in their own homes. That way when they are sad that I am not there, these small tokens will be a reminder that, actually, I am. Kind of!

This is the kind of cancer that doesn't go away

My older children, ages 10 and 8, know that I have the kind of cancer that “doesn’t usually go away” and I will always have to go to the hospital for medicine to keep it under control. I have told them there isn’t a cure for what I have, but I have a lot of treatment options available to keep me healthy. I try to be real with them but also not scare them. My three year old just knows Mama goes to the hospital every week! He was only six months old when I was diagnosed with stage II, and so this is the only life he has ever known. The older two remember life before cancer, so it is different for them.

Co-parenting hasn't been ideal, but it works

Co-parenting is a little difficult since I am the primary custodial guardian. My ex-husband lives nearby but does not have a set schedule to see them, at his request. He works, lives with his girlfriend, and has taken up hobbies. So he essentially chooses when the kids come over based around when it’s convenient for him. Typically this is one night a week, every once in a while, two, sometimes not at all. I wish he was more flexible as it would save me a lot of money in babysitting fees and stress in even securing a sitter. But luckily sometimes when I am in a pinch he is able to help, which is great. So my co-parenting situation isn’t ideal, but it works. I hope he will help more in the future.

Best advice? Enlist as much help as possible

I would enlist as much help as possible! Cleaning for a Reason offers two free cleaning services, which is fantastic. Your hospital social worker can help you apply for grants. Usually, single moms with cancer are at the top of the list for financial resources. I would focus on getting your life, family and health settled before dating. I tried dating when I was first put in menopause at age 35 (by mistake, may I add) and in all honesty, I was very cranky. My body was going through huge changes, I was hot all of the time, I gained weight and didn’t feel confident. It was not a good time to be dating and welcoming someone new into my life. Once I waited until my health was stable, as well as my children, career, relocation, and home, I had wonderful people come into my life. The time was right. And one, in particular, was worth the wait!

Advocate April Illustration

Memory making & staying present in the moment

Since my diagnosis, I have worked really hard at staying present in the moment with my son. I try to do a lot of "memory making" things such as trips, fun play times, and other things that I hope will stand for him one day. I like the idea of thinking about my adult son telling his kids that remembers cooking with his mom, or camping, or even just doing puzzles or playing games. I also try to document everything with photos or videos. I have friends who have lost parents young and each of them tells me they wish they had more of that. I like to think of my social media as a love letter to my son. Not only are there numerous photos of us together, but he will also have it someday as a reminder of my personality, my sense of humor. Someday, I intend to write letters to him for milestone events in his life, but to be honest, even after living with MBC for six years my brain can still not fathom that I may not be there for those things. I’ve tried putting things like that into words and it feels too final for me. I will do it, but I am not ready to attempt it yet.

Have regular check-in conversations

My son was three years old when I received my MBC diagnosis. He doesn’t remember me being healthy as I’ve been dealing with cancer as long as he can remember. I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t hide my illness from my son. I couldn’t! Most of the time, it is just he and I so there is no way to hide the days I don’t feel well, am in pain, and am struggling. I didn’t start off with telling him everything about metastatic breast cancer, but as he has gotten older, he has picked up a lot and I constantly have ‘check-in’ conversations with him. I will ask him if he has any questions about something I may have said, any questions about what he is seeing, and we discuss them openly. So far, I have let him set the pace with these discussions but as he gets older, I intend to have him speak with a child counselor as this is a lot for a child to deal with, understandably.

Putting differences to the side to co-parent

This is one area that has gone surprisingly well for me. My ex-husband and I are very good friends. I am able to openly discuss what is going on with me and he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the slack when I need extra assistance with our son. I recognize that I am very fortunate in this regard and it has been a long road to get to this point. My ex-husband was there when I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer eleven years ago. He has been very supportive, however, he is also very much in denial of the situation. I have explained that MBC is terminal, but he wants to believe that I’ll “beat it”. I like to think of us as a team – myself, my son, my ex-husband, and his spouse. These are the people that will be raising my child should I not be here to do so. It would be foolish on my part to foster animosity between us. I want my son to be able to talk about me when I’m gone and not with someone who holds bitterness towards me in their heart. It takes work, but it is so worth it for both me and him, but especially for our son.

Not letting your life revolve around cancer

There are resources or programs for mothers/single parents living with terminal cancer. You have to still live your life. An MBC diagnosis is earth-shattering. The treatments, the pain, the fatigue...it will all be a part of your life from this point on, but you cannot let your life revolve around cancer. This is really hard for some people to do, I get that. But you are a parent and your children still deserve to have the best childhood you can give them. It may not be what you thought it would look like, but it can still be wonderful. In some areas, there are resources for single mothers with breast cancer. Talk to your cancer center liaisons as they have a lot of ideas and resources for assistance if you need it. Let’s face it, we all need help at some point.

Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Saturday, September 12th, 2020, April Doyle passed away. We know that April’s advocacy efforts continue to reach many. She will be deeply missed.

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