Parenting Through Breast Cancer

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is life-changing at any age. But when we’re forced to balance surgery, recovery and treatment also with parenting, we’re presented with a whole other set of stressors. Everything from how to maintain kid schedules and activities during treatment to how and what to share honestly, without imposing excess fear and anxiety, are challenges every parent must face. 

The truth is, parenting through breast cancer is never part of the plan. I didn’t sign up for this. How do I be brave while also being real? How can I care for my children and be a good mom when I can’t even care for myself? The reality is that cancer can disrupt our dreams at any moment. And while we often define who we are by the life choices we make, there may come a day when we’re also defined by how we respond to things that happen to us. While breast cancer impacts our bodies, our health and our plans, it also very much impacts our family unit and how we show up as mothers. Here's an in-depth look at several unique approaches to parenting through breast cancer.

Simply Showing Up Connects Us

Nothing can prepare us for motherhood until it happens. And so it goes with cancer. So a breast cancer diagnosis catches us off guard and can leave us at a loss for how to show up as the best parents we’d always hoped to be. It isn’t easy parenting a toddler under the best conditions. But, explaining to a three year old that mom is sick (or scared, or in recovery) is a huge challenge.

So, how exactly do we show up as parents? According to one mother, who was diagnosed with stage I breast cancer at 34, we just do. Stephanie Reed writes in a post on the topic, “I was scared and uncomfortable, but I learned to show up anyway. Because I had to.” Reed’s mother (a breast cancer thriver) and her husband were there to help her overcome her self-doubt. Throughout her treatment, her self-image shifted from guilt-ridden to strong and powerful. Her worry that the experience could impact her child negatively was replaced when she saw him bring out the best in her. For Reed, simply showing up helped her feel more connected. “We are great moms, even on the hard days,” Reed explains. “And our kids are better off with us because of it.”

Be Perfectly Imperfect

We’d love for our kids to see us as fearless; to protect them from the harsh realities of the outside world. But breast cancer doesn’t give us the option to remain impermeable. If anything, we have to do the opposite. While the idea of letting our families see our vulnerability is scary, it may also open the door to more honest conversations and remove fear. Asking for help may feel awkward. But it’s more powerful than we know. When we let people help us, what we’re doing is enabling them to feel powerful in a situation that may otherwise leave them feeling powerless or scared. 

Be Real. Be Honest.

As our children grow, they get ‘wise’ to our fears. They deal with similar anxieties about the future. And creating a safe space for conversations about our health can be difficult. It’s important to recognize that those safe spaces may not exist within our own walls – but, in order for children to express themselves and learn healthy coping skills, they are so important. This may require outside help in the form of school counselors, therapists and clergy. Cancer survivor and advocate, Ashadee Miller, writes that being honest with her children was initially difficult upon learning her diagnosis. “But we aren’t perfect,” Miller states.  “...and our kids don’t expect us to be. They know us better than we think, so being real is much more realistic than perfection.” Choosing honesty can be difficult when covering tough topics such as cancer with children. Taking time to process news and vowing to always be honest with her children, Miller has built a sense of safety in her home. “That they live with these realities is painful to me, but it’s also an expression of hope and growth — for all of us,” Miller explains. 

Shift Mindsets...Because Sh*t Happens

Motherhood is filled with joy. It’s also filled with unsolicited advice. So is cancer. When that happens, whether cancer or motherhood comes first, sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable to tell ‘well-wishers’ to go eat cake. Cancer thriver and blogger of My Cancer Chic, Anna Crollman, had big plans to have children when breast cancer showed up and derailed everything. “Just like when living with cancer, everyone has an opinion about how you should be parenting your child,” she writes in a post on how breast cancer shifted her mindset. She explains that, when she eventually was able to have her son, she was less phased by unsolicited opinions. She was also able to view certain losses through a new lens. While she no longer had the option to breastfeed, it simply meant that her husband would be 100% available to share feeding duties. Her roll-with-the-punches attitude has made her a stronger woman (and mom). As she puts it, “Getting unexplained cancer at a young age when I was in the best shape of my life and doing all the “right” things for my health gave me the freedom to accept that shit just happens.”

Parenting in our lifetime is going to come with unique risks and challenges. Simply being good parents to children in the age of a global pandemic, social media and climate change is a struggle enough! We may never see a breast cancer diagnosis coming, but, even if we could, would it even make the challenge any easier? Our children love us. We will love them through the big, scary, awful things that happen. And, while rolling with the punches, we’ll build better, safer spaces to talk about it. We’ll show up. And that will be enough.

"When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child." – Sophia Loren