When I first was diagnosed with breast cancer I had been separated from my husband for less than three months. I was on my own, taking care of my daughter, working full time and feeling free as a bird! The feeling of making one of the hardest decisions of my life and feeling instant relief was so gratifying. To have the confidence that I could “make it” alone was a high I cannot explain. I worked so hard to plan how to care for my daughter, get her to school, arrange for care before and after school, not having a car and still work full time and get my bills paid with a social worker’s paycheck.
The day after New Years Day that year I got the call. My doctor said, “It is cancer”. I will never forget that moment and the sound of his voice. I immediately began looking on the internet to read about real life experience to try to research how others had survived, literally survived, and mentally survived. How did other parents work while they had cancer? How did they pay the bills and take care of themselves? I needed to know I could still take care of my daughter and take care of myself, knowing that I would have no one to help me. I did not have a husband or family that I could rely on to pay my bills. I needed to dissect this situation before it actually played out.
My daughter was only 7 years old therefore I was very careful about how I told her and when. I needed to know what the experience for me was going to be like before I started the process of informing her. I did not want to tell her I have cancer and not be able to tell her what that is going to mean for her life. I needed her to feel secure and know what her life would be like as a result of my surgeries and treatment. When I finally told her I was careful to not show too much emotion about it and stay matter of fact. I feel that was helpful, as I did not want her to see my fear. I wanted, above all else, for her to feel safe and trust me. She was interested, but not knowing much about cancer, she did not ask too many questions or show too much concern. I was thankful for that.
During my surgery and treatments, I was always very open and honest with her on what to expect. I will never forget when I told her that my hair would fall out and I would be bald. She laughed and said that was going to be so funny. Seeing it through her eyes helped me see the lighter side to it. I tried to lose my hair in stages, as I had read this is helpful emotionally. I asked my friend Brad to come over and cut my hair into a cute pixie cut. That felt fun and daring. My daughter loved it. When people at work saw my haircut and commented on it, I would immediately respond by saying “I have cancer”.
This was my “in” to start the conversation. When I started to lose my hair from the chemo my friend Jennifer came to our apartment and buzzed off my pixie. My 7 year old thought it was pretty funny when my friend gave me a Mohawk. We had ice cream and we made me bald. I was thankful as my hair was falling out, although my head ached. Now I could start to try out my wigs and scarves.
When I did lose my hair, it became real to my little girl. Seeing that was a real visible sign that her mommy was sick. It was upsetting to her at first when I would not wear a hat at home and then over time, she got used to it. When I picked her up from aftercare at school once I was wearing a scarf. She told me later that she felt embarrassed and asked if I could wear my wig when I picked her up. It broke my heart that she would have to deal with embarrassment because of me. She had an assignment in art class where she was told to draw herself and her mother. She drew me with a scarf on my head. I will always cherish that picture, as I think about what was going through her little heart when she drew that. Sometimes she would ask me if I was going to die. Often she would ask me if she was going to get breast cancer. I hated that she even had to think about those thoughts.
When I was sick from chemo I had to force myself to ask for help. I had friends who had magically disappeared from my life when I got cancer and I had friends come out of nowhere that I had not expected. It is interesting to see who wants to be there for you when you are in crisis, and who wants to stay away. It was emotional for me to see that some of the friends I thought were so close to me were not there for me when I needed them most. I will be eternally grateful for the ones who cared for me and my child so tenderly and selflessly. I was so sick from chemo treatments and could not get off of the couch and barely feed myself. I had to ask a 7 year old to make food for her and entertain herself. I could not mother her during those times and she had no choice but to be as independent as she could. It was hard for me, but I did the best I could. There were times I could not help her with her homework and I could not tuck her into bed at night. I know that these were hard times for her. Without having another parent around to help it was difficult. She did not complain and was so loving and patient with me. Someone at work told me to not worry about cleaning my house. That was such good advice because it was giving me a lot of anxiety that my apartment was not clean and I just could not keep up with it. I used my energy that I had for my child and not for cleaning. This forced me to keep priorities in life in perspective. So many life lessons were learned during these days.
I also sought out extra support for my daughter at school. I was in touch with her teacher to ensure she knew what was going on, and when I was weaker and sicker than usual. I became this person that I did now know I could be. I was asking for help and I was announcing that I was sick to anyone who would listen. I was wearing scarves to work when it was too hot for my itchy wig and I felt confident that I did not need to remain private about my illness. It is funny how cancer makes you feel so bold. I did not have a car and had to ask for frequent rides to appointments. I was always so self-sufficient, but I had to let go of that and not look back. I had to do this for myself and for my little girl. I often wonder how my experience would have been if I did not have someone so precious to take care of and get well for.
Now that I am strong and healthy, I look back at that time period and think about how hard that was for such a young child. I also think when I look a little deeper that she is doing so well today and rarely ever talks about that time period. I also feel that having cancer was an accomplishment. It is funny because I have been interviewing for jobs lately and have this inclination to talk about my cancer experience, but I have not. It feels like it should be on my resume. I am so proud of what I have done and where I am today. I am certain that my daughter has viewed our experience as a really horrible and scary one. However, I am also certain that she will remember her mother as a fighter. She has seen what it means to push through an illness and not let it break you. She has learned that asking for help does not mean you are weak, but to count on love and kindness. She has learned strength and perseverance. I feel confident that she will carry that with her forever. I do not know what challenges lie in her future. However, I feel confident that I have been an example to her that she can overcome whatever comes her way.