In a time of pandemic, being confined to our homes, home schooling and wearing countless hats of not only parent, but teacher, entertainer, friend, sibling, chef and cleaner, having a ten-year-old pre tween daughter and going through a fourth cancer diagnosis, have certainly tested my resilience and patience to a new max!
I always wanted children, lots of them, but after my second diagnosis back in 2012, I was put back on tamoxifen for a secondary oestrogen receptive breast cancer in my clavicle and told I would have to ‘wait and see’.
Collecting my then 18-month-old daughter from my parents, on the day of diagnosis, was one of the hardest and most emotional moments of my life. Having had my first breast cancer diagnosis before marriage and kids, I felt an unbelievable amount of responsibility. I had so much more to lose this time.
Between family members, paid childcare and friends, I navigated my way through surgery and radiotherapy, timing my treatment in her lunch time naps so she would be none the wiser that I was away. I was driven by a maternal energy to protect my child from the realities of adulthood and in an effort to be as transparent as we dared, we told her mummy had to have an ‘ouch’ removed by Dr Brown Bear (Die hard Peppa Pig fans I see you!)
When I was diagnosed a third time, she was three and her nursery and our family were incredible as I disappeared to hospital for a week, for my double mastectomy and reconstruction. She was my Chief Nurse when I got home and with grandparents galore coming to stay and help, she lapped up the attention, noticing that I was often in bed but that another ‘ouch’ had been taken away.
When I decided to have my hysterectomy Peppa Pig and ‘ouches’ wouldn’t cut the mustard. She was seven, more aware and with an understanding of hospitals and medicine. Her half term treat of a family outing to London became less exciting when told Mummy wouldn’t be able to go and rollerblading down the hospital corridors was tainted with anxiety and concern that Mummy ‘looked funny’ and ‘couldn’t get up smiling’. It was a new normal that, as a family, we have been managing ever since.
Our children pick up so much more than we realise. As a mother, I have a new appreciation of how my child sees me. I am the main care giver and when I need more care than she does, it upsets the balance on a massive scale.
Knowing how much my hysterectomy has affected her anxiety and awareness of cancer, my husband and I decided that when my PET scan results came back before Christmas last year, with a mysterious area in my clavicle again, we wouldn’t tell her anything until we knew what it was.
Since we were already living through a pandemic and homeschooling had presented more anxiety fueling situations for her, as a mother, my protective lioness roared into life yet again. I didn’t want to rock the boat any more than it was already rocking!
When I was finally told I would need surgery to remove the tissue for testing, as a biopsy in that area was too difficult and risky, we told her I was having a mole removed. This alone concerned her, but we reassured her it was routine and no big deal, that it was advised to keep me safe. We were bending the truth, but it gave me space to breathe and focus on myself, keeping my head clear to get through the surgery, Christmas and the wait for results.
My husband and I would wait until later in the evenings to discuss plans and talk through how we were feeling about it all. It was like living a double life! Being an only child, our daughter was involved in 98% of family chats and decisions, and no matter how guilty I would feel about this, I would remind myself of her wellbeing, her Christmas and her anxiety. I also had to remind myself that I was the parent! This was an adult situation and it didn’t make any sense to tell her until we knew what we were dealing with.
I am so glad that we made this decision. Now, three months on from what turned out to be my fourth breast cancer diagnosis, my treatment has only been to change medication and our daughter is none the wiser. It hasn’t been plain sailing but we have avoided bringing more anxiety into her life and protected her from more disruption and uncertainty not by outwardly lying but by limiting what we have exposed her to. In my heart, I know there is a big difference.
Having had a breast cancer diagnosis throughout different stages of her childhood has been challenging but it has also taught me so much about parenting. It is a dance. When they are small you are dancing the Charleston; arms, legs flailing, fast paced, energetic and fun. As they get older, and pre tween, I find myself dancing more of a tango; serious, darker, defined boundaries and intense, so intense.
With each dance, the steps change and both parent and child have to adapt. Throwing cancer into the mix can certainly make it more intensive and areas such as secondary infertility and being an only child, genetics, menopause, puberty etc have and continue to play out.
Despite this, the relationship between a mother and daughter is a beautiful thing. She may mirror my anxieties and stresses and her frustrations may rub off on me, but our children are a part of us. They are our blood, sweat and tears. It took all of that to birth them into the world in the first place and they, in turn, push us to places that test and exhaust us. Without them, life would be so different. They are the reasons we fight. They are the reasons we get up on the harder days and the reasons we hold that medication in one hand and guide them over the road with the other.
After my daughter started school I decided to train as a post natal doula, so that I could support other women affected by cancer in motherhood. It has been my calling and I adore it. Offering practical as well as emotional support to a woman who might be pregnant during or after a cancer diagnosis or who may have had a baby and then been diagnosed, is a special and unique path to tread, but I know how much I needed an extra level of support that would acknowledge the other anxieties and concerns I had about hormones, breast feeding, PND and PTSD and someone who could relate and empathise with that.
Motherhood is messy. It is big, it is scary and it is precious. Cancer will probably always shine a light on my daughter’s journey, but my story is not hers. She is making her own and though genetics will play a role in this story too, the medical world is advancing all the time. So, while she learns about long division and how to braid her hair, I learn to let go of what I can’t control and just enjoy the ride.
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