''Mom Is Sick Again'': How Parenthood Changes When You Live With Metastatic Breast Cancer
"Mom is sick again", I heard my eight-year-old proclaim a few days ago, the day after I had chemo. The week before, I was so sick I was denied chemo. And the week before that, I was so sick from chemo I landed in the hospital with neutropenia. So yes, Mom is sick again. And it is the very last thing I want to be. I try to shield my children from the realities of living with metastatic breast cancer, but you know what they say; "When one person has cancer, their whole family has cancer."
A single mother with stage 4 breast cancer
When I had my children, I never imagined I would end up a divorced single mother with stage IV breast cancer. Never in my wildest imagination. Once upon a time, I baked intricate cakes, made wooden Montessori toys, hiked for miles with a heavy toddler on my back.
I would bring ingredients to my children's classes to make homemade organic playdough, and personalize trinkets for their classmates on holidays. I thrived with motherhood. It was a joy. I was good at it. Not perfect, but good. I enjoyed it and had endless energy for the job. It was the happiest time of my life.
The beginning of this lonely journey
And then, one day, I had breast cancer. My youngest was still a baby-he had just turned six months old. I lost both my ability to breastfeed and my hair practically overnight. My breasts soon followed.
Although I was still married, my husband worked all the time. I was still expected to be responsible for all of the child care, the housework. One relative flew in to help a bit, friends helped when they could. Overall, I felt very alone. Drowning in my new life. What kept me afloat was knowing it would soon be over. I would be in remission.
The cancer came back
Before I knew it, I was in remission...and divorced. Working three jobs, raising three kids all week, and never quite feeling good. We would still bake, play, hike. I was starting to feel like myself again. Six months later, I learned the breast cancer was back. Metastatic. Terminal. I hung on to the hope I could live a long time; we caught it early! My treatment was oral chemo. I didn't look sick or feel sick. I thought maybe things might be okay.
The awful realities of chemo
A few months after my stage IV diagnosis, the cancer took over. I needed IV chemo, and it took a toll. I would be vomiting at sunrise and cleaning myself up before the kids had to go to school. Once in a while, one of them would hear me and come over, "Mom, are you okay? Do you need water? Do you want me to stay with you?" I never wanted them to have a single memory of me like that. I wanted them to remember me how I used to be. Who I really was. This wasn't me. Still, it comforted me to know that they had empathy. Compassion. I was raising good people, who would go on to be good adults one day.
The impact of cancer on children
I am now on my fourth IV line of chemo and coming up on two years of being metastatic. I recently lost my hair again. And that little baby from my first diagnosis is now a little boy. "You're not my mom", he says when I wear my wig or my scarf. "Where is your hair, like this?", he asks, tugging on his own blond curls. I know he doesn't mean it, but it hurts my heart when he says that.
Scan, test, repeat
The cancer appears to be under control again, but the last few months saw it progress to my brain and chest, even inside of my airway. Lots of appointments, scans, stints in the emergency room. I would come home exhausted, but still wanting to enjoy my kids, and wanting them to enjoy me, too. Who wants to be the boring, sick, tired mom all of the time?
Saying goodbye to the mom I once was
One of my hardest goodbyes was saying goodbye to her, to the Mom I once was. She was so cool, and so much fun. I really hope she comes back one day. I miss her. And I think my kids miss her, too. Now we have found other ways to have fun, by modifying things. We bake simple cakes and take easy walks to the nearby playground. Many days we "play school", where I can sit and be the student, or they paint beautiful pictures at the table where it's easy to clean up. On cold days, especially, we love to cuddle up and watch movies, and read, and draw. Our whole little family has learned to adapt.
I hope even if their little memories can't stretch far back enough to remember the Mom they had before cancer, that they will at least remember our time together now with love and fondness, and know I did my very best to give them the happiest childhood I could.
How has parenthood changed for you since having cancer? Please share with our community.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to share that on Friday, October 29, 2021, Danielle Thurston passed away. We know that Danielle’s voice and perspective continue to reach so many. She will be deeply missed.
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