Being a Mother with Breast Cancer – the Challenges and the Blessings

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-altering event under any circumstances, but when you’re also a mother, the experience becomes all the more compounded. It’s common for thoughts to immediately go to one’s children and for painful questions to arise: What will I tell them? How will I take care of them? What if I die? Battling cancer is overwhelming, but then to further be faced with not being able to take care of one’s babies (at any age), or the prospect of not being around for them as they grow up, can be paralyzing. From how to process the initial news to balancing parenthood in treatment and beyond, and for some practical ways moms can navigate one of life’s most difficult battles, read on.

Getting breast cancer is not your fault.

You did not bring breast cancer upon yourself or your family. Cancer doesn’t discriminate, and no matter what kind of life we’ve lived, sometimes cancer just picks us. It’s hard to balance the guilt of having to put our loved ones through the experience, but this is not a time for self-blame. Try and free yourself of any guilt associated with having to endure this experience with your children. Use the strength that you have to heal and give love to your little ones. And consider the benefit of life lessons. Sometimes, the way we represent ourselves in a crisis can be some of our most important teachings as parents.

Remember to breathe.

From the trauma of diagnosis to times of paralyzing fear in the middle of the night to triggering and scary moments during treatment, try to remember to breathe. Both for ourselves and our kids, it’s important to pause before talking or engaging with others. There’s no need to rush the process, over-explain or make any rash moves. Instead, allow yourself and your body space to process and accept what’s before you, and gain perspective before taking any actions.

Plan how to break the news.

When, what and the extent to which we share with our children depends upon the situation and family, but it’s helpful to make a plan. Consider writing your thoughts down in advance or bouncing your ideas off of a friend or partner. Depending upon the ages and maturity levels of your kids, it will be important to consider exactly how much to say and at what point in the journey. Kiddos are smart, and they pick up on subtleties in mood or affect, especially in their parents. So, consider ways to be real and inclusive, but also protective and hopeful. Decide who will be present when you tell them (a partner, friend or family member?), where you’ll be (at home or somewhere more neutral?), and delicate ways to explain the changes you’ll be experiencing. It’s important to keep them in the loop, and in as appropriate ways as possible.

Focus on your children.

Having children is a blessing, and even in the midst of a cancer fight, they offer hope and remind us of who we are separate from our illness. In fact, focusing energy on our kids, and taking a break from our medical realities, is an important aspect of maintaining some semblance of normalcy. True, cancer comes in like a storm and disrupts our world, but holding onto aspects of life before cancer – family dinners, carpools, bedtime reading or if feasible, weekend walks – help us preserve our sense of self as a mother. Although we may feel like we can’t get out of bed some days, continuing to provide for our families can help lift our spirits. They need us, and we need them, and the love that comes from those relationships can help us heal.

Accept support from family and friends.

If you have a spouse or partner, discuss how parenting responsibilities may need to shift during these times, express your appreciation for his/her support and recognize that these added responsibilities may become overwhelming or lead to frustration. Talk openly about each other’s limitations, strengths and worries, and brainstorm possible solutions. When it comes to friends or other people in the community, let them in. Accept help wherever you can – you’d do the same for them.

Don’t worry about your appearance.

As hard as it may be, try to not let changes in your appearance effect the way you act around your children. Remember: your family will love you for you – even if you're a few pounds heavier or have lost your hair and eyelashes. Prepare them for these changes as much as you can in advance, but remember that you are always their mother, no matter what.

As much as being a mother with breast cancer can significantly add to the challenges of treatment, it is also an extraordinary gift. As parents, we know our children best and instinctively how to protect and nurture them. Likewise, our kids offer opportunities to step outside of illness and remember our lives prior. If we consider the notion that illness acts like a teacher, offering perspective and learning about oneself, the goal then is to trust that as a family, you will all grow tremendously in its face – ideally, deeper, closer and stronger together.

“Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow.” ― Mary Anne Radmacher