Take two young children and a workaholic husband. Mix in a genetic breast cancer stage III diagnosis, mastectomy, failed reconstruction, chemo and radiation. Result: chaos. Aftermath: life can be pretty damn amazing...
Author's note: Thirteen was chosen as the writer was born on the 13th and decided to turn this unlucky number around and make it her lucky number.
1. When the baby cries hysterically and you can’t pick him us as you’ve got drains hanging off you – nothing like having plastic tubes coming out from under your armpit – get sibling (neighbor/friend/random person/dog) to comfort him - or tickle and make funny faces at him until crying stops. Rough and tumble loving kids? It is torture you can’t chase them by pretending to be a wild black bear, but enjoy having them sit next to you while you read to them, color with them or just watch endless hours of kids’ Netflix together.
2. Honesty above all! Tell kids there’s an illness called “cancer,” tell them that the medicine makes the hair fall out (“does mommy look silly now?”), but is also making her feel better. Daughter ends up making quite a game out of it when out and about looking for other sick moms (= anyone wearing a scarf)! Making it normal is the key!
3. Swearing and cursing is allowed – possibly even encouraged. “Yes, sometimes mommies and daddies have a potty mouth too,” although perhaps best done when children are sleeping. Nothing feels as good as telling the never-ending laundry, your husband (sorry, babe), the dirty dishes, the disgusting kale you’re “meant to” eat to FUCK you. Vice versa, it is totally acceptable to have tears rolling down your cheeks when your oldest hands you a drawing she has made of you with small, spiky hair sticking up. Hug her and tell her she’s the best artist ever.
4. It is allowed to require alone time. Close the door. Sit up against the door if said door does not have a lock as that seemed wisest not to have with small kids. Do this when fear of death (not seeing your kids grow up, graduate, marry, have children) overwhelms you. “The shakes” is how this felt to the writer – body could not be controlled. Get it out and move on – because you have to.
5. Children are allowed to look at and touch prosthetic breast one is forced to wear after reconstruction resulted in an infection and an extra five days in hospital (what a treat! like a hotel! (or not)). Children’s curiosity when it comes to the weird cushion mommy puts in her bra is understandable and helps them process everything. This is not a scientific statement, but based on the experience of the writer.
6. Driving home from daycare like so many times before and can suddenly not remember the way? Totally acceptable to turn on your navigation system – one less thing to think about. “Mommy, you are going the wrong way!” Forgetting you were on your way home and not on your way to your second home, aka the hospital? Shit happens! (Just don’t forget your kids in a hot car…this writer never did that, thank goodness!)
7. Remember those fun, carefree nights of your 20s? Chemo and hangovers do bear certain resemblances to each other. Knowing that vegetables and other healthy food (back to that kale…) is best for you is no help when body and mind crave but one thing: junk food!
“Love is the husband driving out at 10 at night to satisfy crazy craving for French fries. Eating these while laughing like the so-called hysterical 19th century Victorian women at the absurdity of the entire situation has been seen to happen (why the fuck did I get cancer? WHY? I’m only 33 for Pete’s sake!). ”
8. Sick from chemo but need to go shopping like any NORMAL person (oh to be normal!)? Deciding your body does not control you and ‘damn you, I AM GOING’, it’s understandable if you don’t want to don your sexy(ish) skinny jeans but instead an outfit so casual that it basically equals PJs. Just be prepared for some odd looks and bring your ‘who cares’ attitude along. Unless you wear your one cool hat, people will do their best to avoid catching your eye anyway. “Why is she wearing a scarf?” you might hear one child ask. So what – you’ve probably had to have that talk with your kids’ friends already. (The writer was too cool – haha what a joke…nerdy mom turned cool – to wear a wig).
9. Have a friend that wants to set up a meal train/go fund me for you and your family? Accept without hesitation! Don’t be too proud. Say yes to any help you might get. Don’t feel like you owe them afterwards – just pay it forward another time. Be prepared for not wanting to eat the food, your kids only wanting mac 'n cheese and your husband gaining 20lb. as “somebody’s got to eat all this food”!
10. "How lucky...how blessed you were to have children before you got sick.” “I know so many people who had breast cancer and survived…only to get it years later and DIE!” Helpful advice like this and billion other pearls of wisdom is best ignored. Smile/nod politely or walk away. Be prepared for repercussions if you don’t bite your tongue. This writer was not always good at keeping quiet (it can be oh so refreshing to answer back - teenager in a 30-something old body). Knowing that we might get cancer again – isn’t that what we all fear? – seems to be something others love to point out. Yes, you are counting your blessings and yes you are so grateful for your children – they are the ones truly getting you through this, but you don’t need a stranger’s take on this. Your kids do make life worth living for. They make it easier to recover from a bad bout of nausea – because you HAVE to get up – but also knowing that you are now infertile – that you had to have your ovaries removed too – is gut wrenchingly painful. “When will we have a little sister? I want a little sister too!” seems to be oldest child’s mantra. (Stab me in my heart, while you are at it, will you?)
11. Having a good week? Tell workaholic, stressed out husband that work can wait, book a babysitter (nope, the bank account is anything but healthy, but this will help keep your relationship from developing into a small business cooperation with talks revolving only around hospital visits or practicalities). Your husband won’t care as much about your new or missing breasts as you think. If he does? Is he worth it then?
12. Mom’s Night Out? Ditto re date night. Go for it! Color in your missing eyebrows, wear a bright red hat! Have fun! Have a margarita! No, you are not meant to consume alcoholic beverages, but life is also about having fun! Your friends might seem awkward and apologetic – accidentally mentioning their period pains and saggy boobs only for the room to go quiet, but after a while, it will get easier. Your friends have listened to your cancer agonies, have brought you to appointments, have helped you with your kids – at least, if they are good friends. If they aren’t doing anything – ditch them. Think of it as a sign of you getting better again/returning to the new normal that your friends once again seem comfortable talking about ‘female problems’ in front of you – and with you.
13. You will get through it. You might even look back at some of this and laugh at the absurdity of what happened. Like forgetting to put on your top when leaving the changing room (thank you – chemo brain strikes again). You might have gained some close friendships during your ordeal. You might have a lot fewer friends (good riddance). Your kids might be scared (take them to a therapist!), but they might also be more caring and empathetic. Your husband – heck! Maybe take him to a therapist too – or go together! Enjoy the small moments (yes, it sounds like a cliché) – your husband hugging you, a trip to the park with the kids. Life is never what you expect it to be, but, to quote the ‘lemon’ saying that seems to go around on Pinterest: If life gives you lemons – then make lemonade! That’s basically what this writer has to say: let’s make a hell of a lemonade!
Editor's note: "Thirteen Musings" originally appeared in WILDFIRE: Volume 1, Issue 4: Parenting With Cancer, September 2016.
Words by Tine Pollard. Stay at home mom/wife. Diagnosed at age 33. IDC, stage III, ER+, PR+.