Below is the second of several guest posts to Survivorship Partners’ blog.
We all know that life is full of uncertainty; but when one is facing a potentially terminal cancer diagnosis, uncertainty takes on a whole new dimension. Cancer can teach us important lessons: learning to embrace life fully, while living with an uncertain future, is one of the most difficult but valuable of these lessons.
Parenting as a cancer survivor is undeniably one of the most challenging aspects of living life with uncertainty. This month’s guest blog post is written by Marolan, a young woman who has capably and admirably raised her daughter while living life in the face of stage IV cancer. She has embraced it with unending and incredible courage and determination.
Spring showers, sunshine breaks and snow have been the norm the last couple weeks in the Pacific Northwest. Typically we don’t see snow this late in the season, just drizzly showers intermittent with bursts of sunshine that beckon the winter-weary out of doors. This year I’ve been holed up inside, watching gale-force winds rip through the swaying, enormous Evergreen trees in the neighbors’ yards, hoping they don’t fall on my house.
Today as I drive to pick up my daughter from school the skies change from sunshine to snow to rain to sunshine all in the course of 15 minutes. Hannah is wet from head to toe just from running from the school to the car. She simultaneously dumps her backpack in the backseat and plants a kiss on my cheek.
If I were to compare the teen girl Hannah is now to the girl I hoped she’d be when she still had that new-baby smell, it’s surprising how closely the two align. Until recently, I was certain I’d failed her in life’s most important ways.
I believe most people begin parenting with not only the best intentions of what kind of parent they will be, but also knowing what kind of parent they won’t be. My brother and I were raised in Texas by an extremely hardworking mother, and by our scientist dad who is a happily self-professed workaholic. I think every child has things in life they want to do differently with their own children. I had my list for Hannah: no one else would raise her, so she would never be in day care; she would spend her childhood just being a kid who felt loved and protected; and, lastly, she could form her own spiritual beliefs.
When Hannah was four months old, we began the process of moving from our tiny 910 square-foot, first-time-buyer’s home, to a bigger, more family-friendly one. My husband – a gentle, “suffering musician” type – and I met when I was just 18 years old. At 31, with the new baby, a new home, and a healthy marriage I was the happiest I’d ever been.
Shortly after we signed the loan documents, my husband began the slide into a soul-crushing depression. Nearly three years later I was diagnosed with cervical cancer and I found that our combined illnesses exceeded my capacity to take care of my marriage, Hannah and myself. I got a radical hysterectomy, and sadly, a divorce.
I’d never lived on my own before marriage, and suddenly I was a single mom who desperately needed benefits and an income to support us both. The transcription business I owned had been ‘feast or famine,’ but there was not enough feast to get through the famine months. I got a good job at a large technology company, and placed 3-year-old Hannah into a Montessori School full time (also known as day care). I felt like I’d failed her. Eventually I was able to drive to work dry-eyed, but I never did shake off the feeling of failure.
The next four years were a battle between the strict demands of my company, and my own for being a great mother. Every moment I was not working we were at the zoo, on nature hunts, and learning about life. We made a happy pair.
When Hannah turned five I met Alex. He was a gentle, computer-savvy gentleman, with a sexy English accent. Hannah was with her dad, so I agreed to a first date on Christmas day. Alex asked me to meet him at a local Italian-themed restaurant (oddly owned by a Ukrainian family). When I walked in the bar, it was at full capacity with over 40 Ukrainians singing and dancing, and this wonderful Englishman was staring captivatingly at me. My friends say this guy must have been something special when I introduced him to Hannah a week later – I never introduced her to anyone! One year later we decide to make our little family official. Life was perfect.
Following our honeymoon I was anxious to get back to work to hit deadlines. The back pain I’d been plagued with for the past three months was so unbearable I couldn’t find a comfortable position. I gave up in frustration and went home to work on the floor. After two weeks with no improvement, I went to see my GP, who ordered an MRI and called me the following day. I had Stage IV cervical cancer. A tumor the size of a grapefruit was squeezing my sciatic nerve like a balloon animal. It was inoperable. It had been 4 ½ years since my surgery, and I was supposed to be celebrating 5 years of being cancer free in just six months. How could this be?
The doctors said I was young and strong, so they were going to hit me with everything they’d got in their arsenal. I began chemotherapy and radiation, and alarmingly, a Hospice nurse began visiting me on alternate Wednesdays. I reluctantly turned Hannah’s care over to my mom and Alex, to friends and caring neighbors. Hannah was told, “Not now, honey, Mommy isn’t well,” and, “Quiet down, sweetheart, your mother is sleeping.” They did their best, but she felt pushed aside.
This was not the care-free childhood I’d envisioned for Hannah. That feeling of failure was nagging at me again, and I was too sick to do anything about it. I spent all my time trying to eat and drink only to throw it up again, out of my mind in pain. I needed some control in my life, so I asked the Hospice nurse if she could stop coming because she made me nervous.
Five months into therapy I experienced complications and had what was called a “near-death experience.” Somehow, that brush helped me turn a corner. I had to move my body so I could be here for my girl. I decided to start walking. At first, I couldn’t make it down our short drive. Hannah happily joined me for my “shuffles” (they weren’t fast enough to be called a walk), and escorted me back to bed. Then we’d have another go an hour later. Within six months I could walk around the block four times!
Our walks turned into a special time between us to talk about life, laugh and act silly. Late summer we always stopped at the same blooming honeysuckle, taking turns picking the bright yellow flowers and placing them on our tongues for that brief taste of sweetness. One fall day we passed the honeysuckle out of season, its brown vines covered with crunchy dried leaves, when she confides, “Mommy, I don’t believe there is a God.”
I was speechless. I know she’s been praying for me. She’d been given a prayer jar with little pieces of pastel paper to write on, and a tiny pencil that fits inside. She’s scribbled, “Please help my mommy not be sick anymore,” and “please cure cancer,” before tucking them safely back inside the little glass jar and screwing on its silver lid.
I tried to imagine how she must have felt. She’s only 7 years old, and her mother was a walking skeleton, bald, and frail. Of course she felt like her prayers hadn’t been answered!
I was raised in a scientific home. Bringing up a spiritual matter was often tantamount to picking a fight. Yet I always believed in something greater than what I could see. Time and time again I find life’s most important lessons spring from times of misfortune. I often shared these insights with Hannah, always pointing out life’s complexity, its beauty.
It never occurred to me that she would conclude that there was no God at all. I told her to be patient; but I felt like I’d failed her again. Should I have provided her with a more formal religious foundation? In my desire for her to have the freedom to explore her spirituality, perhaps I was too vague. My own beliefs had deepened during my fight with cancer. I decide to trust that Hannah had her own path. I would continue to teach her what I believed, but left it to her to decide what spoke to her own soul.
Hannah remained patient, and kept a hopeful cheeriness that brightened everyone’s day. After a year of treatment, my body finally went into remission. We were all overjoyed! Alex and I began the journey back from caregiver and patient to husband and wife, I became a fulltime mother, and Hannah was grateful to have normalcy in her life once again. Soon I was strong enough to go to dinner, on family vacations, and truly enjoy life.
Time flied, as it tends to do when life is going well. It was little more than a year later when the cancer came back inside the sacrum, weaving a snaky path through the gluteus and periformus muscles. My doctor told me I’m terminal. I found another doctor.
When Hannah learned of the recurrence, she was truly devastated. At the tender age of 8, she still envisioned us living together when she grows up (she will use her money as a lawyer, airline pilot, and cab driver to pay for a big house; she will live on one side, and Alex and I on the other). Just then, in this precious space in time, I was her world. But Hannah was older and understood just how bad cancer could get. I told her I would fight the cancer monster again and that I would beat it. Even as the words left my lips, stated as fact, I wondered if I could indeed beat it. Who survives cancer three times, and lives to tell the tale?
Around four months into chemo I was hospitalized for an electrolyte imbalance. They ran a PET/CT scan to see how my therapy was progressing. The following day an old friend stopped by to visit. We were laughing, reminiscing about the crazy days we worked together, when my doctor tapped lightly on the door-frame, and asked if he could speak to me in private. He closed the door, and turned back to me with wet eyes and said, “The cancer is gone. We don’t know where it went.” He was baffled. The cancer had simply disappeared.
Recently Hannah and I were oohing and ahing over the start of the blooming cycle for azaleas. The first ones are always purple, then red, yellow, blue, white, and more, bursting in bloom like fireworks, one after another. I watch my growing girl run ahead to do a cartwheel on the neighbor’s lawn. I smile and wonder at the miracles we call children, and their ability to overcome obstacles life throws in their way.
I remain in awe at all Hannah has been through in her short life. She’s been watching me fight cancer for the last decade, yet she hasn’t lost her sense of humor or that silliness that I love so much. Being in daycare didn’t change the fact that she has a kind and honest heart. Having those diverse set of caregivers taught her life lessons I never could have, and have made her a better-rounded person.
She runs back to me, and as we walk past the dry honeysuckle branch her hand slides comfortably into mine. It’s still months before it blooms yellow and sweet, the fragrant flowers tumbling up and over the fence onto the ground. Hannah squeezes my hand and says, “Mom, I’ve decided the universe is just too perfect not to have something behind it. I do believe in something greater, I just don’t know what that is yet.” I put my arm around her shoulders, give her big squeeze, and tell her she is great.
She is finding her path! It turns out that I didn’t fail her in the least.