When I was initially diagnosed in 2017 with Stage II breast cancer, my boys were one (1) and three (3). We were tandem nursing and as each of my boys were born, my parenting revolved around my breasts. Nursing was such a great way to resolve just about anything and I loved watching their bond grow and develop over time as they both received nutrition tailor-made for them together. Once I was diagnosed, we had to wean abruptly so that I could get the tests the doctors needed to properly treat me. My then newly minted four (4) year old adjusted well, but the almost two (2) year old wailed for nights on end and I still wonder how that has affected our relationship overall. My older son has a lot of memories about breastfeeding, but my younger son doesn’t.
At the time, we thought that was the worst thing that would happen as part of this introduction to breast cancer.
And then, during chemotherapy, even though I was determined to be node negative after my lumpectomy, my tumor markers were tested and that began the process of getting diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC). I hadn’t told my team about my limp that was caused by breast cancer eating away at my bones, causing both femurs to require pinning so that they didn’t shatter. At that time, I had no idea that breast cancer could spread through the blood and while no one can know for sure, I’d likely had MBC for quite a bit and before that inaccurate Stage II diagnosis.
As we began the process of closing my business and packing up the house to move in with family, my husband and I had many long talks about what to tell the boys and how. They were enjoying all of the family attention (my mother arranged for at least one of my siblings to come help the weekend after each chemotherapy treatment) and they had no idea how much their lives were about to change forever. It’s hard to know, even now, how much they knew or understood or overheard in all of the chaos. We were literally just trying to survive.
In the end, we decided to handle my diagnosis in the same way that we deal with most parenting things, we just told them the truth at their developmental level. We talked very intentionally with the boys about how there are bad cells like germs (they had to learn about those when going to pre-k and always showering when they got home) and mommy had to get medicine to kill the germs. The part they still struggle with is why the medication doesn’t just kill all the bad cells and mommy can be all better. Me too.
We drew then on our conscious parenting seminars about addressing the three levels of “questions” that all children ask, consciously or unconsciously: 1) Am I safe? 2) Am I loved? 3) What can I learn?. You can learn more about these questions and brain states here. Thinking about the different brain “states” helps us to know what to say and when to address what it is that is difficult for the boys. Most of the time, they are just preoccupied with their own concerns about friends and electronic gaming and their own interactions.
And yet, we know that how I’m doing affects their daily lives; so too does our own backgrounds and how we were individually parented.
My husband and I talk a lot about how we were parented, how we want to do the same or something different. He’s Jamaican, so there are some cultural differences too; he didn’t immigrate to the US until he was in middle school. For example, my husband and I were both instructed to clean our plates during meals while growing up. My husband, more than I, was affected by these instructions so much so that he doesn’t want us to pressure our kids at any point to eat more or to eat something specific. We implemented some strategies early on with them about food and that has served us well overall. We offer, we give choices, we never require; we honor their understanding of their bodies as much as we can.
My eldest is a little more intuitive and sensitive to the emotions of others. I can tell if I’m struggling with something, he gets agitated and easily upset. Recognizing his emotional state and doing what we can to address it — usually with cuddles and invitations to share — can help him settle. I’ve intentionally chosen to invite him and his brother on walks — sometimes that reciprocal brain movement and not having to look another person in the eyes can help them be more likely to share. Sometimes.
The needs of our children change with time and so must some of what we do as parents, regardless of MBC. A silver lining of doing this parenting thing with MBC is that I’m so much more intentional than I was before my diagnosis about connecting with my kids and sharing my heart with them.
My hope is that they will always know how much they mean to both my husband and myself, every single moment of every single day.