Having cancer and young children: A mother's advice
Sandra Bishnoi was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastasis in January 2011; she currently has no evidence of disease. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a young mother, chemistry professor and scientist living in Chicago. She is now in pursuit of a new identity with the aid of her two young children, her supportive husband and the Houston scientific community.
I was recently asked how breast cancer has affected me as a mother. My kids were 1 and 4 when I was diagnosed. I'm sure that I've gone through many of the same stages that anyone diagnosed with cancer has, including denial, anger, grief and acceptance.
Have those stages been worse for me as a mother than for someone without children?
I can't say. All I know is that having young children has provided a necessary distraction at some points during my treatment, but also added to my confusion and grief.
At the early stages of my diagnosis, I was sure that death would come quickly. I cried a lot when I thought about my baby girl growing up without a mother and the fact that my kids wouldn't remember me or have me there to remind them of how much they are loved.
The thought of these things causes me to tear up even now.
I thought that maybe I'd have a year or two because surely someone with Stage 4 breast cancer wouldn't have much longer than that. I'd heard reports of women making it 5, 10 or sometimes even (miraculously) 30, but as a scientist, I knew that the odds were -- and are -- against me.
An oncologist even recommended that I make a two-year plan, considering the seriousness of my diagnosis.
After that, I wrote on my CaringBridge site that I needed to plan for what I would leave behind for my children. People suggested that I write each of my kids letters that would be given to them when they were older, collect gifts for special occasions that I would miss, make picture books of special moments with them and make quilts they could use to remember me.
I even bought a couple of journals to write them letters. I wrote one or two entries to each of them. But I got too busy living life to spend time writing letters that they wouldn't read until I died.
What's the upside of being a mother with small children while you have cancer?
Little kids, especially toddlers, don't have a lot of sympathy on those days when you've had chemo and don't feel great. They don't care if you're tired. They have needs, both physical and emotional, and they know how to get what they need. Even if you can barely get out of bed, you will find the energy to try to take care of those needs.
Having young children helps to focus your energy on something positive (and often very cute), instead of the uncertainties of cancer.
Another great thing is that young children still love you, even though you don't have hair, eyebrows, eye lashes or color in your cheeks. They don't look at you like a sick person; they just see Mommy.
Often, they're happy to cuddle on the couch when you don't have energy to play; they just want your attention and love.
What's the downside of having young kids during cancer treatment?
While you're literally struggling with life and death, you have to worry about someone else's needs. You don't have much time to contemplate what's happening to your body because your attention and energy are in constant demand.
During these times, it helps to have extra helpers -- family, friends, babysitters, whatever. You have to take time to focus on your own physical and emotional needs.
Cancer treatment is a battle, and your body is the battlefield. This is the time to call in reinforcements.
While I was undergoing chemo, I was blessed to have neighbors who set up a website to coordinate dinner deliveries. I also had a full-time nanny since I was still working. My in-laws lived with us during the worst part of chemo -- adriamycin and cytoxan for me -- to help with the kids.
All of this physical and emotional support allowed me to spend time with my kids during the fun times, but have others step in when I needed a break. Most mothers with cancer will never have this is a luxury. But it's something that can make a tangible difference.
In the almost 24 months since I was diagnosed with cancer, I've gone through many cycles of treatment and emotions. I've gone through 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy, physical therapy, radiation, many infusions of Zometa (an anti-osteoporosis medicine), many scans, lost my hair, re-gained my hair, and I continue to deal with lymphedema, chemobrain, and post traumatic stress from my diagnosis.
I had to take a leave of absence from my beloved career as a chemistry professor and finally had to resign so that I could focus more on my family and myself.
My diagnosis has permanently changed my life forever, but being a mom has helped me keep things in perspective. I will live the rest of my life as a cancer patient, but I take comfort in knowing that I do not travel this road alone.
Regardless of what happens with my treatment, I know I've helped create two beautiful children, and I will spend the rest of my life making sure that they know that they mean the world to me.