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Motherhood and cancer: Girls, I need to tell you something…

On International Women’s Day and with Mother’s Day just around the corner, I thought it would be good to have a few posts about cancer and motherhood, as the impact on your family is such a major part of the journey. As the mum to two gorgeous teenage girls, one of my first thoughts on being told I had cancer (just after the “what the actual F***” thought had flashed through my mind a few times) was “how on earth am I going to tell my children” and it was with this thought that the tears and panic came. Because as parents, we are programmed to want to protect our kids and a cancer diagnosis impacts your kids almost as much as you.

What if you can’t be a good mum whilst you are having treatment? What if you don’t make it and you leave your children without a mum? It is unthinkable, and shocking, and hard to even think about these possibilities, but these are the thoughts that go through your mind.

My concerns for my children

My daughters were 16 and 14 at the time of my diagnosis, and I think that telling them was one of the most difficult things I have encountered in this journey. I knew that, as teenagers, they were old enough to understand the dreaded C-word but were probably not mature enough to understand it all. At this point, I wasn’t even sure that I understood it all, so what chance did they have!

I didn’t want them to be scared for me, something that on reflection was completely unrealistic especially as at that point I was petrified. I swung between numb, angry and upset, blaming myself for bringing this “thing” into our lives and putting their happiness, well-being and innocence at risk – ah the joys of “mum guilt”!

A major concern was that as children of the 21st century they have the internet, and they are not afraid to use it! I was so worried about the information that they would uncover and what this would do to their mental health, and I worried about the potential impact on their education, their lives, all of it really.

How to break the news about my diagnosis

It actually took me nearly a week to get to the point where I was ready to tell them – a week of whispered conversations behind closed doors, tears and panic in bed at night. The pressure of keeping it hidden was awful, and whilst I know that some people choose not to tell their children what is happening, didn’t feel this was an option for me. From a personal point of view, not telling them would have just added extra pressure and put a wall between my children and I, which was the last thing I wanted. As it turns out, my children were one of the things that gave me strength and helped me through the dark days, and if you want to look at positives, I think we are closer as a result of what we have all been through together, as a family.

The initial conversation

In the end, we told them on a Friday night after dinner. I prepped for this conversation by getting together a list of websites that might be useful, details about counselling that I could get them access to if they wanted it, and by telling their closest friends parents so that they were aware of the situation and could “prep” their daughters for the news too. My younger daughter in particular, needs time to process information and change, so I arranged that if she wanted, she could go and hang out with her best friend the day after so that she could be away from the situation, giving her the time and space she needed to process it all. This may not work for every child, but it was the right thing for her, and I would say that as the parent, you know your own child and what they need – even if this situation is unlike any other you have encountered as a parent, you should go with your gut and you will probably be on the right track. As it turned out, this was exactly what she wanted to do and helped enormously.

I can’t remember the exact words I used, but to summarise, it went something along the lines of “I have some bad news, I have cancer, but it is curable, we are going to fight it, it will be awful for at least the next 6-12 months and then it will be better”. I gave them information about the treatment I was going to have – chemotherapy, breast surgery and radiotherapy, some of the side effects to expect and told them that if they had to hit up google, here was the list of sites they could pay attention to, and to ignore everything else.

I told them they could ask me anything they wanted, and I would always try to answer them honestly. I gave them the option of talking to other people, from family friends to professionals, and let them know that we had an army of support around us that they could lean on. We cried, we hugged, and it was done. First major hurdle over.

During treatment

Over the coming days and weeks, in the run up to treatment beginning, I made sure to speak to the school, and encouraged my eldest daughter to tell her college tutor and employer, so that they would be aware of the situation. Friends and family checked in on them in case they wanted to talk to someone who wasn’t me or my husband. I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing support network, because at times like this, it takes a village.

I made sure that we did lots of fun stuff as a family, including going away for a short break, and involved them in helping me choose my wig(s) – admittedly this probably worked more because they are girls, as I don’t imagine this would have been a fun thing for them if they were boys!

Me channelling Britney Spears c. 2007

I took the decision to shave my hair before I even began chemo, as I wanted this to be something that I chose rather than something that happened to me, and once the initial cut was done, they helped me to keep stubble at bay (whilst it lasted) by shaving my head for me. Again, this was a personal choice that I know won’t be for everyone, but as the stubble started to come out properly, we had a lot of fun (this may not be the right word!?! but it was certainly funny in a weird, dark way) working out the best way to just get it gone, even resorting to duct tape one day!!

It was important to me that they feel involved and informed about what was going on, and they both (on different occasions) came with me to hospital appointments, although I wouldn’t have let them come to chemo, so they could see that it was mostly just sitting around bored and waiting. I didn’t want the hospital to be this mysterious, dark spectre on the horizon for them. It is entirely possible that I have scarred them for life, although I really hope not! And I have kept hold of the list of counsellors just in case…

Once treatment began

During chemo, they helped to look after me on the bad days – fetching endless cups of ginger or peppermint tea and reminding me to drink enough water. I think one really difficult aspect of being a mum going through cancer treatment, is the guilt that you can’t be the kind of mum that you want to be because physically when your body is battered, bruised and exhausted, you just can’t do all the things that you normally do.

Even though you may not let them know just how bad you are feeling, you also can’t expect that you can go through this intensive treatment and just carry on, children really do see everything, especially when they are deliberately looking – which when they are old enough to understand what is going on, they will be doing in this situation. This is why I felt that honesty was always the best approach. If I was having a bad day, I would say so, I would also tell them funny anecdotes that came up from my experiences and focus on the positives too.

As treatment progressed

Of course, with older kids you have the advantage that they are more independent, plus the fact that as teenagers they are never averse to a duvet day, settling in on the sofa with some trashy TV, the dogs and lots of blankets which I repeatedly threw on and off as the hot flushes hit.

I made sure that on good days, we did fun stuff together too – we went out for day trips, lunches, even to a concert. One day, I mentioned that I really fancied a bit of chocolate cake, and before I knew it, they had gone to the shop, bought provisions and baked a huge chocolate cake with ganache icing and extra chocolate grated on top! It’s no wonder I gained weight – they clearly have inherited my “feeder” tendencies. And I love them for it!

I also made sure that they had plenty of time with friends away from the “sick-house”. As chemo took its toll, my eldest daughter went into ostrich mode and was out all of the time – whilst understandable it was hard for me to feel like she was avoiding home and me in particular, and we had more than one conversation about this.

My husband would regularly take them out for cheesy chips (don’t judge!) and chats to check in with them and give them the chance to get things off their chest. I think it worked, they seem to have coped amazingly, and we are out the other side. They still seem to be remarkably well-adjusted, normal teens – complete with untidy bedrooms and an unhealthy addiction to their phones. I think that the ongoing open communication that we have maintained throughout all of this has been a major part of this.

Genetics

Being just 40 years old at the time of diagnosis, I count as “young” to get breast cancer, and with a status of grade 3, triple negative (a rarer form of breast cancer) an extra stress was the fact that I would need to be tested for the BRCA genes. Not only did I have to go through this, there was also the possibility that this could be passed on to my girls. It was horrific, and it was a very long few months waiting for the results.

As it turns out, I consider myself incredibly lucky as I do not have the BRCA gene. However, I am still considering whether to go for private genetic testing to find out whether I have one of the other rogue genes such as CHEK2 or PALB2.

There are quite a few other genes that can be linked to Breast Cancer (albeit with a lower risk factor than with BRCA) and these genes are not routinely checked on the NHS. A private test costs in the region of £1,500 and so I’m still weighing up the pros and cons on whether to do this or not. For my girls, I probably will at some point in the future.

Since treatment finished

My daughters have both matured a lot in the last 12 months, which is unsurprising really and I am ridiculously proud of how they have coped, and the young women they are developing into. Plus, with lots of practice over the last 11 months their tea-making skills have been honed to perfection, and they can both make a cracking cuppa now!

They help out a lot more around the house, which is one side effect from having had cancer that I can definitely get on-board with!

Another is that I feel that as a family, we are stronger and closer than we were before all of this happened. We are back to doing nice things together, and in fact, just came back from a girls trip to Egypt that was brilliant. They will probably cringe when they read this, but they are two of my favourite people to hang out with, even with their (at times) slightly questionable taste in music. I consider myself incredibly lucky, as I know that this wont be everyone’s experience of being a mum going through cancer treatment.

The future

I won’t lie, it has been tough, and I still worry about the long-term effects that the last year will have had on them. I worry that in the process of getting well, I have failed at being a good enough mum for them. Being in the “recently finished and my mind is still a mess” phase, I also worry desperately about recurrence, and that I won’t get to see them fully grown, settled and (maybe) married with kids of their own, if that is what they end up doing for themselves.

This seems to be mostly manifesting itself in my (according to my husband) going over the top when it comes to things like Christmas and birthdays. My eldest turns 18 at the end of May… I have been planning a party to end all parties since before November.

And do you know what, if I feel like spoiling them a bit, treating them to something nice or going overboard to create a #specialmemory then so what? I had cancer, and I beat it, so I am going to treasure every second I have with those wonderful girls of mine.

So, this Mother’s Day, for me, that is what it is all about – spending time with my wonderful family. My daughters, my own amazing mum, my fantastic sister and her beautiful boys, and I will all be together, and it is for days like this, and hopefully many more to come, that were my major driver to fight, and to continue fighting fierce!

Websites/Resources that I gave to my children

Macmillan

Cancer Research

Hope Support – a UK charity aimed at supporting young people with a seriously ill relative

RipRap – specifically aimed at teens with a parent with cancer

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