Adding Patient to the Work-Life Balance: Moms With Cancer Under 40

Today's a pretty typical day.

My alarm goes off before dawn, ripping me from some crazy dream involving finding a big yellow bulldozer at work in my backyard. I hit the alarm as quickly as possible, careful not to wake my husband who didn't get home from work until after 10p. I squeeze in some sunrise exercise then watch the clock as I get myself dressed and presentable. Next up: a carefully synchronized dance between my daughter and I that includes getting her dressed, packing lunches for both of us, calling to the bathroom to check her status on teeth and hair brushing, handing her breakfast, shoving my laptop in its bag, double checking there are no permission slips or other forms needing to go back to school, etc. (I say "careful" because this whole house of cards comes crashing down if either of us has a meltdown.) 

Check the clock: 8:30a -- carpool is here! Shoes! Jackets! And we're off, returning around 6p to orchestrate the evening-version of getting ready for work/school the next day in and around homework, getting dinner on the table, and getting the kiddo to sleep at a decent hour.

This scene is playing out in homes all across the world every single day.

Stay at home mom. Work from home mom. Working mom.

Any way you slice it, moms are working. Whether they're the lead parent, the primary money maker, or all of the above, moms are among the hardest working in our society. Juggling kids, careers, and the management of a household often feels like a three-ring circus.

These days "mom" is short-hand for Chief Operations Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Nutritionist, Chauffeur, Secretary, Tutor, Mentor, Concierge, Housekeeper, Chief Get 'Em Out of Bed and Dressed Officer...

So what happens when you add Cancer Fighter to her long list of domestic and professional job titles?

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer my daughter was just three years old. She had not yet started preschool. My husband and I shared in her care: I worked from home for several hours each day and then we switched: I took over caring for our daughter while my husband went off to work. Often I would work through my daughter's naps, and again in the middle of the night after she'd gone to bed. There was always work to be done. As the primary breadwinner I felt compelled to work as much as possible while also striving to be as hands on as possible for my daughter. Even when I went on business trips, which was frequently, my husband took time off work so he and my daughter could come along. I recall many times when I would dash to our hotel room for a quick nursing session before fixing my make-up, straightening my nylons, and dashing back downstairs to work.

And then I was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer.

Although I stopped traveling, I did continue to work through my year of cancer treatment (I didn't fully appreciate how hard this was until after the chemo fog finally started to lift!). 

I had to take a step back from some of the parenting I was doing, and that was incredibly hard for me because this really scary thing was happening to our family. I really didn’t know if I was going to survive it, and I didn’t want to traumatize my daughter further by pulling back from her during this crisis.

We were accustomed to seeing each other all the time, every day. Even while I was working, I was only working a hallway away and often had one ear out for her cries.

For all intents and purposes, she was my number one priority. If I'm being honest, it was probably my child then work then my husband, and then myself way down at the bottom of the totem pole.

But cancer. Cancer reshuffled the order. Overnight I had to move myself -- my body -- to the top of the list.

After I was diagnosed, doctor appointments, hospital stays, and the like took me away from home many times each week in a way that was brand new for my daughter. At that time in her life, I didn't generally go anywhere without her. We enrolled her in preschool four days a week. It had always been our plan for her to go to preschool at four, but suddenly it was also a necessity. It was a lot of change all at once. 

Cancer was happening to my body, but it was also happening to my family — to my daughter — in a major way.

One night soon after my diagnosis as my husband and daughter slept, I sat on the edge of the bed and cried. As I sobbed I thought over and over again, "What have I done to our family?!" I felt so much guilt for getting cancer, for bringing this terrible thing into the center of our happy family.

Now to my long list of job titles, I had to add "patient." And my husband added a new job title to his list, too: caregiver (which includes the sub responsibilities of secretary, chauffer, chef, insurance wrangler). It was all very strange seeing all our rolls flipped, switched, and inverted. In becoming my caregiver my husband became very protective of me, which sometimes put him at odds with our daughter. When she was loud and obstinant as preschoolers often are, suddenly my easy-going husband had little patience for this, especially if he felt it was a stress to me or if I was napping, so at times if felt like he was between us, a big fiercly protective bear.

Like nearly everything in my cancer year, I had mixed feelings about this. As strong as my need to turn inward and heal, I also still felt a strong pull to put my child first.

On one occasion I took my daughter to chemo with me. On the one hand I wanted her to see where I was going all the time and to see that it wasn't painful. But this was also me struggling to keep control: hey look, I can be a cancer patient and a mom at the same time! Gold star for me! (I only did this once as I pretty quickly learned other patients don't really want little kids in the Chemo Lounge with them.)

Another thing I learned was my daughter got scared and worried if she saw me napping. (A bald-headed, puffy-faced, radiation-tanned lady sleeping in the middle of the afternoon does not really inspire confidence.) I needed to nap nearly every day so I tried to "schedule" my sleep when she was at school so she wouldn't have to see it. (This was only semi successful as of course I was usually ready to conk out right around the time she got home from preschool in the afternoon. Murphy's Law and all that.)

But one way or another we got through it. Ater chemo I had a mastectomy and then radiation, and each of these milestones brought with them their own parenting challenges. I've been disease-free for four years now, and my daughter just started third grade. For the most part, my husband has retired his "paper bear" persona (unless someone is banging away on the piano!). 

I still wonder what lasting effects our cancer year had on all of us, my daughter in particular, but mostly I'm just glad we got through it. 

Photo by anyaberkut/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by anyaberkut/iStock / Getty Images

April Johnson Stearns is the editor and founder of Wildfire Community, LLC, a digital magazine for young breast cancer survivors. She was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer at 35 years old. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her family.