Parenting Through Cancer: Moms With Metastatic Breast Cancer

Today’s blog post requires no preamble, no warm and fuzzy introduction, no scare tactic, no statistics, and no inspirational quote—we believe that the women featured today are inspiration enough.

Firefly continues our blog series—Parenting Through Cancer—by sharing the experience of moms diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic—treatable but not curable—breast cancer.

As a mom, these women struggle with similar issues that every parent experiences: how to get your baby to sleep through the night, how to pick a great preschool, whether or not your child is behaving in school, teenage angst, helping your child choose the right college, etc.

They experience the same parenting issues as other women diagnosed with breast cancer: how and when do I share my diagnosis? what is the age-appropriate language I should use to talk about cancer? what resources are available to help? is my child’s reaction normal? etc.

“My mom had breast cancer 12 years ago. My Dad had pancreatic cancer 6 years ago. They are doing well. (My children’s) friends’ moms have had breast cancer and are fine now. Their experience has been that cancer is treated and then (the person) is better. That’s not the case for me,” begins Ann*.

The mom of one of her child’s friends experienced an early stage breast cancer diagnosis, and Shayna* used it to discuss her own Stage IV diagnosis and the differences between the two with her children. “We are open and honest about the fact that I will always be in treatment for breast cancer. That (my breast cancer) won’t be going away.”

For Carolyn*, metastatic breast cancer treatment—different than the typical early stage treatments—has added a layer of frustration to her relationships, including those with her family. “(My children) and husband see me looking good, looking normal, and they forget that I’m always in chemotherapy. They don’t understand that I need a nap, that I can’t clean the house in one day like I used to, that I am in constant pain and that I would need to look into additional medications for it.” It can be hard to see that “(my teenager) wants to ignore it, have (their) own life and pretend that everything is fine,” reveals Carolyn. Add this to the unintentional insensitivity of friends and acquaintances to her metastatic breast cancer limitations and side affects, and it can be overwhelming.

For help, Ann asked her Social Worker how to talk to her children about her Stage IV breast cancer and was disappointed when “she said she wasn’t trained in this and couldn’t help me.” Shayna searched for books that would help her talk to her children, “but it was hard to find anything out there about metastatic cancer.” She used the books she could find as a guide for determining the age-appropriate language and vocabulary to describe breast cancer and its treatment. Ongoing visits with an oncology therapist has helped Carolyn as she struggles with her diagnosis and how to parent her children.

Each mom diagnosed with breast cancer has to determine for themselves how to tell their children, how much to share with them about their diagnosis, and the language to use. A Stage IV diagnosis carries with it an additional decision. “It’s important to personally decide on sharing your prognosis as appropriate for your family and kids,” explains Shayna. “I haven’t shared my prognosis with (my children). I wanted to let (them) be ‘kids’ and not have that be first and foremost in (their) heads.”

With her children, Ann decided, “I don’t talk about when I’m going to die. Instead we talk about changing treatments when the current one stops working and what would happen for a new treatment. I want to be honest, but not burden them with adult problems.”

Carolyn teamed up with her husband to share her diagnosis with their children. “We were advised to say that, ‘Mom is sick. Mom has cancer,’ and not to talk about the stage.” It has been hard for Carolyn to remember to ask for help from her children, as “they don’t always see what I need when I look so normal!”

“I don’t know what the future will be,” states Shayna. “I think of how what I am doing now will impact my (children) in the future. What experiences, life lessons—what I am doing now—will affect (them) positively.”

For Ann, “My husband is my best friend and he likes to be included (in parenting decision), especially when it comes to my breast cancer. He likes having a say in our future.”

Stage IV cancer can make us uncomfortable, elicit pity, or bring about sympathetic tears. We are incredibly grateful to Shayna, Carolyn, and Ann for their stories as well as any reactions and feeling that each of their stories, each revelation, and each statement brought about in us. Thank you for shining a tiny bit of light on parenting with Stage IV cancer.

“Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the ability to act in the presence of fear”

– Bruce Lee

*Names have been changed to protect participants and their children.

Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Staffer and breast cancer survivor.

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