When I was young, I loved to dream of all the things I could be when I was older. The possibilities seemed endless and my list was endless.
Of all the things I thought I would ‘be’ in my life, the idea of being a ‘cancer mama’ never crossed my mind. Like so many other mamas and papas, my exposure to childhood cancer was limited to watching an annual childhood cancer telethon on television.
I would usually sit and watch those poor families with tears in my eyes wondering how they made it through their days. I felt sorry for the children with their bald heads, the IV poles that they pulled down the hall, and their parents who bravely spoke about living life on the edge. I would rejoice when a story had a happy ending and shed tears when the ending was not happy.
When the hour-long telethon was over, I would dry my eyes, say a silent prayer for the children, shut off the television and move on to the next daily task on my list.
It was not that I was unsympathetic to these families and what they were going through, it was just that they were . . . strangers to me. . . sad stories that made me appreciate my own life and health a bit more than I did the hour before. . .
. . . until one Friday in June. A Friday the 13th nonetheless. My husband, Will, and I were sitting in a local doctor’s office with our 9 month old daughter, Willamina. We were there for a simple, routine check-up. Somehow, though, in the process of this rite- of-passage check up, the world had stopped. My husband’s face was wet with silent tears and I was trying to understand what the doctor had just told us.
I was silently repeating the words, ‘massive, tumor, liver, biopsy. . .’ under my breath. Call it mother’s intuition, but I knew immediately what it all meant. Other words started bouncing around in my head. ‘Cancer’, ‘chemo’, ‘surgery’, ‘hospital’. . . There were dark words too. . . words that no parent should ever have to think about.
On Friday, June 13th, 2008 at 10:30 AM, another cancer mama was born due to an aggressive, one in one million, rare, stage 4 childhood liver cancer called Hepatoblastoma.
Sometimes in life we get to choose what we are. . . what we become. I am a wife by choice. I am a mother by choice. I am a speech pathologist by choice. I am many things by choice. Other times, life and circumstance grant us a label. . . such as cancer mama.
I have been a cancer mama for four years. No one aspires to be the mother of a child with cancer. It is a label that you are given that you would gladly return if life would allow, and once you become one among the cancer mama masses, your life is changed. . . as it is, I suppose, with any child with an illness, disability, or special need.
You now see life through a different lens. . . a new light. Perhaps it is a bit cliche to say, but true nonetheless, you do spend more time loving and laughing. You also spend more time in moments of fear and frustration and worry. Highs and lows are amplified. Some days are spent kicking and screaming with an aching heart. Other days you move through with a calm acceptance of what you have become. . .a mother to a child with cancer.
Willamina has been cancer-free for two years. I am still tentative as I write those words. Although her oncologist cannot technically declare her in ‘remission’ until she is five years out, I like to think of her as being a normal kiddo who has survived her bleak diagnosis against the odds. There are days now when I can look at her and the word ‘cancer’ doesn’t cross my mind.
I am more than happy to kiss Willamina’s label of ‘cancer kiddo’ good-bye. More than happy to allow that phrase to be transient and short-term. That said, I am still and will always be a cancer mama. I cannot nor do I wish to erase the lessons that being a cancer mama has taught me. The emotional scars, while fading, are reminders of my strength and perseverance and love.
Yes. . . I am many things in this life. A wife. A daughter. A sister. . . and a cancer mama.