Three words: You have cancer. They will change your life. They will take away that breath you’ve been holding since the biopsy, or surgery or scan, and rip it from your chest. They will humble you and devastate you. You’ll hear them echo in your ears every so often, like a reminder. As if you’d ever forget them. No one wants to hear those words. What’s worse is what happens after hearing them. Not only do you have to come to terms with your diagnosis—a mom with cancer—you have to help your family and friends come to terms with it as well. You have to smile and reassure, even when you feel like you’re breaking apart.
You try to figure out the easiest, softest way to explain to a 4- and 5-year-old the concept of an illness that even you don’t understand. It frightens you to hear your daughter blurt, “Mommy has cancer,” to other people or strangers, knowing in her mind she thinks it’s like a cold. You want to tell her the severity of it, the possible outcomes and expectations, but you know you can’t. Your job as a mother is to soften the blow and protect her from the inevitable heartache should she start to understand.
You tearily hug your son when he walks you to the couch saying you need to rest the boo-boo on your neck. If only it were that simple. You want to tell your husband all of your fears and the things that keep you awake at night, but somehow, it feels selfish. You know that’s silly, but you just can’t look in his eyes and see the pain there and release your own. You hold back tears when you talk to your parents and grandparents as they shed their own and curse how this could happen to someone so young. You know they are thinking, “Why not me?” after every glance, and to that, you have no answer.
You schedule the appointments with a thousand different doctors and coordinate each and every treatment you need to get well. It’s a balancing act of trying to stay strong for yourself and family while trying not to fold under the pressure and panic that slowly sets in. The treatments are grueling, making you physically and sometimes mentally ill. You are away from work and find yourself worrying about how you’re going to pay for radiation that was specially shipped from a nuclear reactor in Canada. You can’t comprehend that something that could save your life could financially wreck everything you’ve worked for up to this point.
You find yourself staring at your kids, memorizing the way their noses crinkle when they laugh, holding their hands just to cherish how soft and warm and perfect they are. You listen to your spouse talk, not really hearing the words, but taking in the sound because you want to hear it forever. That song you heard on the way to an appointment hits you in just the right way, grabs at an emotion so perfectly, and you’re crying or laughing.
You privately rail at the injustice of feeling so weak when you’ve always felt so strong. You want to be the poster child for endurance, but at some point, you just want it over. You avoid people so you don’t have to see or hear the pity when they tell you how sorry they are. You have no idea how to respond to it anyhow other than to shrug it off and say it is what it is. Cancer is terrible any way you look at it.
At the end of the day, you plant your feet on the ground, take a deep breath, and say, “Screw cancer.” You’ve got this. You may rail and cry and break down, but you fight. You fight tooth and nail for yourself and your well-being and your sanity. You push through the day and know that you are giving it everything you have. You’ll try to smile a little more, give your kids a few extra hugs and kisses, tell those you love just how much they mean to you. You sing that song just a bit louder, even if it’s slightly off-key. You know in your heart that this isn’t it. There is so much more you have to see and experience.
Cancer is terrifying, but it won’t ever take away who you are. It may feel at time like it’s breaking you, but that’s when you dig just a little deeper and find out you are braver than you ever imagined. Stay strong. Keep going. You know you’re going to win.