The moment I found out I had breast cancer will forever be frozen in time. I was sitting at my kitchen table. My house was full with visiting family. My beautiful, blonde haired, blue eyed two-year-old was running around with his cousins giggling and screaming with delight as he played his favorite game, “chase.” As the doctor said those words, “It’s a cancer,” I caught a glimpse of my Jack running by and my heart exploded. I allowed myself one brief moment to sit frozen in pieces. Then, I took a breath and interviewed the doctor as if my life depended on it, because it did. Not only did my life depend on it, but my child’s life depended on me being healthy and there for him as he grew up. I had no choice but to live, and I had to do whatever it took to reach that goal. In about a minute, I had gone from a soft spoken, mild-mannered person to a tiger, unstoppable at getting the care I needed–immediately.
As a mother who has experienced cancer when my child was very young, I understand the issues and the struggles of being both a mother and a cancer patient. Cancer is difficult for anyone who has to face it, and each person’s experience is unique. Our challenges and fears as mothers are not greater, but they are different. I remember that, on the day of my diagnosis, I couldn’t actually bring myself to be around my son. I know it’s not logical, but, for some reason, I felt like I had let him down. The things we think and feel as mothers often defy logic. Some of us are fortunate enough to have doctors tell us we have a good prognosis, or no evidence of disease, and we still lay awake at night wondering if we’ll be there to see them graduate high school or get married. Will we see our grandchildren? How will they possibly turn out OK without us? Will they remember us, or will we fade with time? And, do we even want them to? Maybe it’s better if they don’t have a chance to remember or to miss us, so life won’t be so painful for them. The fear burns through us.
Then, there are the practical challenges that go along with cancer and motherhood. At a time when we feel sick and vulnerable and just want, and need, to sleep and to feel better, mothers need to balance things like child care, transportation, medical appointments, school and day-to-day parenting in order to care for ourselves and to provide as much normalcy as we can for our kids. For many moms with cancer, this means continuing to go to work most days so they can provide for their families. Some lucky moms have a great support system to lighten the load. But, what about the single moms who do not have an abundance of family and friends around them? Their road is a bit more treacherous.
I spoke with Lynette Vanderhorst who founded Single Mothers With Cancer after being diagnosed with Gestational Trophoblastic Disease at age 24. The challenges she faced as a young, single mom of a six month old gave her an insiders view of the unique difficulties of mothers. After a cancer diagnosis she also found the calling to reach out and help others. Because single moms often have the added burden of being the only source of physical, emotional and financial nourishment for their kids, Single Mothers With Cancer aims to support single mothers in any way they may need during their cancer treatment journey. This includes child care, medical expenses, education as well as patient navigation and day to day duties and expenses.
In my journey I found You Can Thrive! a foundation dedicated to supporting women with breast cancer by providing access to integrative modalities and education many survivors otherwise would not be able to afford. As a client of You Can Thrive! I realized how important self-care is for getting through cancer, for longevity, for quality of life, and for being a better mother. Taking the time to go to You Can Thrive! and exercise, receive acupuncture, nutrition counseling, relaxation modalities and education in a nurturing community helped me to be a better mother during treatment and beyond. After going, I always felt physically better, emotionally balanced and uplifted. Not only do I know it improved my outcome and my quality of life in infinite ways, but it inspired me professionally to be there for other mothers and survivors and help them really understand that, as care-takers, we are imprinted to focus primarily on the needs our children and others, prioritizing ourselves last. I guess one silver lining in this cancer cloud is that, sometimes having cancer forces you to learn to love yourself.
The practice of self-nurturing has become integrated into my survivorship plan. Here are some coping strategies every mom can employ:
Once a week, take some personal time for things like a yoga or meditation class and many other things you can find at You Can Thrive! or in your local area.
Get a minimum of twenty minutes of exercise each morning. This means waking up half an hour earlier. It’s totally easy and my mantra has become, “I can do anything for twenty minutes!”
Have a date night once a month with your partner or with friends. It’s mandatory that you go out and feel special with adults you like to be around.
When the fear creeps in, just remember that fear is really just thoughts. Thoughts are not reality, and thoughts can be controlled. Dismissing them is just like turning the channel on the TV! Remember, a thought can only lead to physical stress when it is replayed over and over. This is important, you have control in this area!
Practice gratitude each day by listing five things you are grateful for when you wake up.
When the kids are driving you nuts, take a breath and remember how lucky you all are to be together at this moment.
As women, we often say yes to everyone but ourselves. Cancer can teach you to say no with compassion for yourself and for your future with your family. “No, today I cannot go to soccer practice, I must meditate.” “No, I can’t cook dinner tonight, I have an acupuncture appointment.” You learn to say yes to things like an offer of help from a loved one, or things like your own self-care regimen that you might normally prioritize last. You learn that you can’t be Superwoman all the time. Sometimes you have to be Zenwoman!
I once read, “treat yourself as if you are your only child.” After my own experience of having cancer and now, as a health counselor working with women with cancer, I understand why this should be every mother’s mantra. We want our kids to grow up knowing how to love and respect themselves and experience all the wonderful things that life has to offer. But, it’s through our own self-care that we teach our children to practice care for themselves. It is through self-love, that our children learn to love themselves. As mothers we lead by example. And, as mothers who have had to deal with cancer, we should be proud of ourselves and of each other this Mother’s Day and every day at the example of strength and courage we have set for our children.