Last December, just a couple weeks before Christmas, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In those initial days following the news, I wrestled through every unpleasant emotion known to the human soul: fear, anger, grief, confusion, anxiety, and even guilt. As a 38-year old mom of two young boys, I worried most about how this unwanted journey would impact my children.
After knotting up this wild tangle of emotions and gaining the courage to look ahead, I met with my breast surgeon. She outlined my treatment plan: 18 weeks of chemotherapy, followed by a double mastectomy, followed by reconstructive surgery, followed by possible radiation, with targeted drug therapy infusions for twelve months. Whew. A full year of treatment.
We waited until after Christmas to share this plan with our boys, who at ages 5 and 7 were just old enough to have some limited exposure to the scary word “cancer”. They would be home from school on holiday break when I began chemotherapy, so there was no time to ease into this strange new year.
Fast forward nine months and I have completed chemotherapy and two surgeries. While I still have a few more months of targeted drug infusions, the end is in sight and my prognosis is good. In reflecting on this experience of parenting through breast cancer, I have realized that my most poignant takeaways are not unique to a mom battling illness. The lessons I have learned are actually starkly relevant to any parent going through the myriad struggles that everyday life presents.
At that first appointment, my breast surgeon said, “Honestly, 2019 is going to suck. Go get yourself a new calendar and a Sharpie. Just mark off every day of 2019 and know that in January of 2020, you will be in a better place.” I was desperate for a tangible coping strategy, so I followed her advice. With my Sharpie, I slashed through all 31 days of January 2019, a cold and dark month that charted my first two chemo infusions and the complete loss of my hair. However, the January page on my National Geographic Exotic Travel calendar is actually the only page I marked.
While this “countdown” tactic seemed like an appropriate action step, it felt deeply unsettling to view even a relatively small chunk of my life as a drudgery to merely “get through.” After that first month, I realized that as badly as I wanted to be on the other side of this treatment year, I would never wish away the one and only year that my boys would be a kindergartener and a second-grader. As appealing as it sounded to just time warp ahead, I couldn’t bear the thought of hopscotching over the wonder of watching my 5-year old learn to read or skimming past the gradual bloom of my 7-year old’s witty sense of humor. I realized that even though I was often miserable with physical symptoms and drowning in stress, I didn’t want to simply endure a year of raising my boys. On the contrary, I felt a fervent need to savor these small slices of my sons’ childhood with as much presence and delight as I could muster.
Most people would expect a cancer survivor like myself to surface with a renewed devotion to mindful moments, invigorated by “carpe diem” decisions, and a heightened focus to suck the marrow from the present. But, it dawned on me that all parents experience this ongoing tension between running the gauntlet of raising children head down, while also lapping up the joyful moments with an unabashed desire to freeze time. After experiencing this parenting paradox in an intensified way, I remembered all the times I wished to just “get through this stage,” characterized by suffocating clinginess or after school tantrums or bursts of “pre-pre-teen” sass. While it’s natural for all parents to process these real frustrations as hurdles to clear, the truth is that despite the perpetual exhaustion, we enjoy running the race. While I still look forward to 2020, I am grateful that I didn’t just mark out these months of witnessing the incredible resiliency of my children and myself. There are harrowing, heart-breaking, and conflict-filled chapters in all our parenting memoirs, but the story that unfolds is riveting. Keep reading.