Life – but not as you knew it is our latest blog series on living with cancer as a young adult. In this blog, Sam Reynolds writes about being a parent to a toddler while having treatment for cancer. As she points out, parenting and cancer can test our feelings of control – in both cases, we’re challenged to give in to what’s going on around us, whether we want to or not.
At Shine, we have lots of young adults who are both living with cancer and small children. If you’d like to get in touch or discuss this blog, leave a comment, Tweet us, check out our Facebook group or follow us on Twitter.
The Parent Trap: Living with Kids and Cancer
Guest blogger: Sam Reynolds
We are respecting our parents’ wishes…..They didn’t want to shelter us from the world’s treacheries. They wanted us to survive them.
― Lemony Snicket, The End
My daughter was eighteen months when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time. I always knew she was a miracle (doesn’t every mother?) but when this happened, I cherished her even more. They are incredible little human beings – but they are also not stupid. How do you explain cancer to a child?
On Googling this topic recently I was slightly alarmed at how little information there was for newly diagnosed parents. The first page I found was a Cancer Research UK page that blatantly suggested that patients would have grown up kids or grandkids, not young children. It took me a few more searches until I found anything useful. A lot of the information was about children with cancer. I realised it was important to share personal experiences of living with kids and cancer because there doesn’t seem to be a huge amount of support out there, but it has a huge impact on people dealing with it.
It is impossible to keep your fear and stress a secret from kids. At any age, they pick up on things. When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t yet a parent. When diagnosed again in 2012, my daughter was small but had a scarily good vocabulary; we immediately knew that we would have to give her a basic understanding of what was going on. Since the lump was in my clavicle, it was hard to hide the bandages after surgery; we called in an ‘ouch’. We explained using Peppa Pig, her favourite show at the time, that Dr. Brown Bear was taking a bad bump out of Mummy’s neck and making her better. The radiotherapy schedule that followed was totally planned to fit in with her daily routine. Every lunchtime I would put her down for a nap and a friend or family member would come and babysit for two hours while she slept and I dashed to the hospital.
I was worried about the impact all of this would have on her. I realised we had obviously done an okay job when one day when we stopped outside the hospital where I had been treated. She asked me if this was hospital was where I got my ‘ouch’ fixed; I said yes. She then piped up, ‘I wish I could have an ouch one day so I could see Dr. Brown Bear’. My heart melted.
Earlier this year I was diagnosed for a third time; my daughter is eighteen months older but she is still incredibly young. We have continued the ‘ouch’ phrasing – although this time the ouch was on Mummy’s boobies. We can only do what is right for her age. She will learn more as she matures, but she will always know.
The real test for me was during my stay in hospital for surgery. I was advised before the surgery not to invite her to see me. She would have been exposed to more than she could process and I would have been unable to hug and comfort her. It would be too traumatic. After the surgery, however, I was the one who felt like a child. When my mum came into see me I was very emotional and I felt like there was no way I could look after myself, let alone anyone else. It frightened me how vulnerable and childlike I felt. I missed my daughter so much, yet the idea of being around an energetic, full-of-beans three year-old, scared me. I felt guilty. I wanted to be her mummy again but I had to put all my energy into healing and recovering without her and that was hard.
Recovering from surgery, going for treatment and living with cancer and all it’s appointments and side effects is massively demanding on anyone; as a parent it can seem doubly difficult. Trying to care for a child as well as yourself is a challenge. On the one hand they are hugely helpful in maintaining some routine and distraction; on the other, it can become all consuming trying to make sure things are kept as normal for them as possible. Both parenting and having a serious illness test the biggest control freaks among us; I find it an even more enormous test to just surrender at a time like this; to go with it and ride the wave.
It has been hard living with cancer and having a child though the healing that comes from the vitality, curiosity, adoration and innocence of having that little person growing up in front of me cannot be denied. Yes, at the end of a long day we can fall out; we are all tired and we are all emotional. But tomorrow is a new day and to them, everything is forgotten.
When I was having radiotherapy two years ago it was my daughter’s second birthday. I remember thinking I must be mad to organise a two year-old’s party and to return from a 20th session of radiotherapy to entertain both children and parents. Seeing the look of delight on her face when we brought out the cake and when we sang happy birthday…. nothing can replace those moments. I wouldn’t let any cancer diagnosis ruin that for her, or for me.