There is no right way to parent. There are certainly many books, guides, and acceptable ways to parent, but no single right way. This also applies to parenting when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Simply put, there is no right method to showing up as a parent when you have cancer, other than exactly how you can and want to.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 32, and as a mom to 1-year-old and 3-year-old girls, I didn’t yet understand the effect my condition would have on them. As I started chemotherapy and began planning for my first surgery, I considered how my presence and ability as a mom was going to be different. I didn’t diligently map out a parenting plan. Rather, I felt out each day and situation as it came, responding however I felt was appropriate in the moment. I value truth and transparency in my relationship with my children, and that guided how I shared my diagnosis and dynamic physical and emotional states with them.
Given their young ages, I purposely communicated to them in simple terms. For instance, we identified the term “cancer” as an illness that I see my doctor for. They knew that the cancer was in my chest. I explained chemo as a “medicine shot” I got on my chest and told them that this medicine caused me to lose my hair. I think it helped to reduce overwhelming them or scaring them -- and it also helped me to break down my experience into bite-sized, basic pieces of information.
I continued to engage them based on the interests they expressed to know more. My girls have a fascination with Band-Aids, and my household is always stocked with colorful, fun-themed ones. So I let them re-dress and decorate my port with Band-Aids of their own choosing. Both were also very curious about my squishy, JP drains after surgery. So, I let them hold the drains’ plastic bulbs and bob the fluid around (with clean hands, of course), and I showed them how the fluid came from the boo-boo on my chest that was getting fixed up.
Many days I didn’t feel up to my full potential as the Mom I wanted to be and otherwise thought I might have been -- earnestly educating, engaging, and entertaining my kids during the pandemic. Focusing on all the things I could have or should have been doing as a parent ultimately took away from my experience of what I was able to do now. By struggling with understanding my own limitations as an individual and a parent with cancer, I began to understand my own humanness. As a parent, especially, I feared my children seeing me as anything short of a superwoman. I strove to be their all-knowing and all-powerful protector. I recognized I had cancer and I believed I was doing my best. Cancer is not the reason I’m not a superhero -- being a human is. Cancer just led me to learn my own humanity.
Once again, I felt honesty was the best policy in sharing this insight with my girls. If I didn’t have the energy to fill up their water table, I simply told them so. When they asked why I put the remote control in the refrigerator (thanks, chemo brain!) I explained how my medications make me confused sometimes. And when they got more than the recommended screen time, well, I know they didn’t mind, and I was OK with that. Throughout my cancer journey, my daughters remained happy, healthy, and loved. That’s what truly mattered to me.
By exposing my humanity to my children, I wanted them to see healthy expectations of how people can function in life and how one can be super without being superhuman. I showed them that it’s OK (and recommended) to not perform at 100% of your capability 100% of the time. I wanted them to see what it means to say “no” to others in order to take care of yourself, and how to recognize when and how to ask for help. I aimed to model the meaning of personal space and boundaries.
During this all, my daughters held me up in a very powerful way, simply by being themselves. Children have a charming energy and admirable degree of resilience. Surrounded by this spirit, I was motivated to withstand anything, even my worst fears, with my chin up.
Becoming a parent changes you as a person. Being diagnosed with cancer changes you as a person. Both present unique challenges, test you on multiple levels, and will lead you to question yourself in unexpected ways. There is no right way to do either, especially, when you are navigating parenting and cancer at the same time. If you are a parent with cancer, I encourage you to open yourself to create the experience that most resonates with your values and beliefs.
To connect with other breast cancer survivors, join our Breast Cancer Facebook Support Group.
Photo Credit: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Rennie Solis / DigitalVision via Getty Images
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