The tragedy of breast cancer is that it is really common. It affects many women, many of them relatively young, like me. It seems everyone knows someone with breast cancer. This is a major reason why breast cancer gets so much funding and why it seems (to me at least) that sometimes breast cancer gets over-hyped as a fear of women. Women die every day in accidents, from other types of cancer, from heart disease, etc. but we don’t really glorify those problems like we do breast cancer. In addition to the high frequency of diagnosis, many times breast cancer patients are mothers with young children. This adds an additional element of sadness to the situation. I think the most common question I get asked is how the children are doing. The truth is, as far as my situation and my children are concerned, they haven’t really been affected by the diagnosis to the extent we would think they would be. For example, when they were five and two I underwent chemotherapy and lost my hair. I thought it would be this traumatic event, especially for my youngest who touched my long hair a lot. I actually worried they might become a little afraid of me. They really didn’t seem phased at all. My oldest, who was five at the time, does remember me losing my hair and doesn’t want me to lose it again, but I don’t think he was really upset by it. I’m sure skeptics are thinking, “Of course, Katie, you’re just seeing what you want to see and downplaying their feelings so you feel better”. I really don’t think that’s the case. I think kids are just more resilient than we give them credit for. They understand I have cancer, it’s just kind of a part of life for them.
Cancer has changed my relationship with my children. I’ve definitely fallen off the parenting wagon a little bit. I say this with caution, because I am a little concerned it will be used against our family at some point (I can see it already, “Well, those kids never had a chance with their sickly mother”) and for the most part I feel like I’m still a functional parent. Now I’m finding myself veering slightly towards grandparent territory. Aside from love and support, I feel like two of my most important responsibilities as a parent include holding my children responsible for their actions and giving them the tools and guidance to thrive intellectually, physically, and emotionally. Like most other parents, I want them to be grateful and realize the value of hard work. I think it all adds up to the concept of delayed gratification. Do the hard stuff first, fun stuff second. Simple, right? In my current life situation, there are two problems with this. First, my kids are more immediate gratification individuals. Second, my motivation for delayed gratification in life has pretty much gone out the window. As I’ve stated before, my plan of enjoying the fruits of my labor later in life may not pan out like I had hoped anymore. With regard to raising my children, I guess selfishly I thought if I “raised them right” I’d be around to see them morph into functional adults. Now that plan is on hiatus too. Add up all of these factors and I’ve found myself retreating from some of the more tasking parenting duties. For example, in their spirited playtime my children are constantly leaving a trail of toys in their wake. Of course, it is then their responsibility to clean up when they are done before any more fun activities can happen. Many times, that fun activity is watching a little TV at night. This is actually a fun activity for me also because I get to take a break, talk to my husband, sit down…you get the picture. This leads to a little conflict of interest. My children are world-class procrastinators. Their abilities truly amaze me. It takes an enormous amount of patience for me to wait for them to clean up before we can just relax in front of the TV. I lack this patience after an exhausting day and once in a while, especially lately, I’ll just let the toys slide (or even worse, pick them up myself) so we can get on with the night. To be honest, if I was ever told I had only six months to live, I’d probably just go out with the kids for movies and ice cream every day. Obviously that’s not the case, but right now I seem to be stuck between my cancer-brain which is telling me to just live consequence-free in the present and my mom-brain which is telling me that my family and I need to be disciplined in our lives to prepare for the future. I’m sure this is hard on my husband too. Sometimes I just feel like the 3rd child now in our family. I just want to enjoy life and have fun and he’s stuck bearing more of the responsibility.
One thing I’ve noticed about my kids is that they live life thinking my husband and I are invincible. I think this is a good thing, the last thing I want is to cause my children worry and anxiety about my health, but sometimes they are relentless! I feel like I live this double life where I interact with adults who assume I’m bedridden and my kids who think I’m a superhero with my super power being the ability to serve their every need. I think that as a mother, when you are sick, whether it be cancer or down with a cold, you are faced with a balancing act of taking care of yourself and being there for your kids. I think any parent will tell you they are constantly juggling their needs versus their kids perceived needs. I say perceived because sometimes I feel like we think our kids need so much more than they really do. Since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer the juggle has become more intense, but I’ve also been able to cut myself some slack in terms of being a supermom. I can’t provide twenty novel opportunities and activities for my kids every week. I can’t attend every event the kids have. I can’t creatively incorporate a vegetable into every meal my kids eat. I couldn’t do any of these things before cancer and definitely can’t now. What I’ve discovered I can do, and I feel like I do a better job of it since being diagnosed with cancer, is slow down and listen. That’s one of the major things I think my kids want and need, to be listened to, and for some reason my “cancer-brain” seems to be better at listening to them. I also enjoy their company more and more. This is partly because they are older and easier to talk to, but also they don’t treat me like I have cancer. Most adults don’t either, but to my kids I’m still just their mom.
I had a lot of extra help with the kids while I was undergoing chemotherapy three years ago. This was great, but at times I felt lonely and isolated. When I got diagnosed with a recurrence recently, I became really scared. Not only that I thought I would die immediately (which I know now, thankfully, will probably not be the case), but also I could almost feel my kids being taken from me and the loneliness and isolation set in again. I began to have this paranoia take over about losing my kids, like I was going to be sick and alone, then die. Then the kids would be at the mercy of my husband (a great dad, of course, but not a substitute for me), our extended family, and possibly a new mother whenever they faced problems in life, which we all know they will. That was probably the worst feeling I’ve had throughout all of this. “I will not be there for my kids.” Thankfully, that feeling has lessened quite a bit. What I’ve found now is that I want to spend as much time as possible with my kids, but I also don’t want to “deal” with them. I’m sure that’s what we all secretly want as parents and one of the many hidden treasures of becoming a grandparent. I think the great dilemma of having kids is that you always want them around you, until they start fighting or misbehaving, then you don’t want to be around them. Then five minutes after they’re gone, you miss them again. So, basically I’m still thinking along the same lines as any other parent, I just get more emotional about the day-to-day grind than I used to.
Of course, the possibility of my death happening before they graduate high school or college or get married or whatever life event I’ll miss out on does make me really sad to think about. I have no doubt that losing a parent at a young age is really hard on a child or young adult. I’m not sure at this point the best way to prepare for that without needlessly frightening my children, so that topic has been somewhat avoided. We all have to come to grips with death at some point. While I don’t think it’s fair for children, I know they will survive.