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How My Kids Got Me Through A Breast Cancer Diagnosis And Treatment

By Rethink Contributor November 1 2018

By Jennifer Kelly

I found a lump in my breast the night of my daughter’s first birthday party.  I remember sitting down on the couch to relax after everyone had left and for some reason I was inclined to do a breast check. This was in May 2015 and I was 33. My doctor called me into his office on a Saturday (when they call you in on a Saturday, you know it’s probably not good news.) When he told me, I felt shocked and like I had been punched in the stomach. One of the first things that I said was, “But I have kids. My kids are so young.” My son was nearly four-years-old at the time.

There is no family history of breast cancer for me, so this came out of left field. After an ultrasound, mammogram and then biopsy, I was diagnosed with Her2+ Stage One Breast Cancer on July 4, 2015 (my mom’s birthday). From the initial diagnosis to the first meeting with my surgeon felt like forever, but in reality, it was only about two weeks. From diagnosis to surgery (I opted for a bilateral mastectomy with no immediate reconstruction) it was 32 days. Once I was healed from my surgery, eight rounds of aggressive chemo followed, and then Herceptin, a targeted treatment that is administered every three weeks, which is kind of like a maintenance chemo.

Navigating Surgery And Chemo With Kids

To date, I have completed four breast cancer-related surgeries in the last three years. While they were painful and hard to go through, it was manageable. The hardest part of post-surgery was the fact that I couldn’t hug or lift up my kids. They are still so little, and they wanted their mom. When one would reach out wanting me to hold them, cuddle them, or comfort them, it broke my heard that I was physically unable to.

I was so lucky to have such a great support network. My mom especially, really stepped up and took over my role of caring for myself and my family. Each week I had chemo she stayed at our home and did the cooking, laundry, and drove my kids to school and their activities. I remember her saying, “My job is to take care of you and the kids. Your job is to get better. Focus only on that, don’t worry about anything else.” And I did. Having that kind of help and support was huge. I had a lot of other family and friends who stepped up as well. We were and are so lucky and grateful to everyone. I was never alone at a chemo appointment, and always had people by my side. I was truly spoiled.

During my chemo weeks I was out of commission. I spent most days in bed or on the couch sleeping. Thanks to the drugs I was given to combat the side effects of the chemo, I wasn’t throwing up but I did feel like I had a really terrible flu. After the major side effects wore off, I was able to take my kids to school and activities, prepare meals and keep my house running. I was exhausted though.

What We Told Our Kids

It was really important that through this whole process my kids would not be affected. Instead of telling our son that I had cancer, each time I had surgery we explained that I had an operation on my chest and that I couldn’t hug or cuddle for a while, which was understood. When it came time to start chemo, we took the approach of telling them that I was going to have to have medicine every few weeks at the hospital and because of the type of medicine I was having, my hair would fall out. They seemed okay with it. I had wigs and toques that I wore because I still wanted to look like myself for them. We even named my wig Wilma and they still ask about her!

Fearing For My Life and My Kid’s Memories

A major fear that I have from this experience is recurrence. I don’t know if I will ever feel confident that I am okay. As of this past August, I have been three years cancer-free. It’s still hard though. I see my oncologist every six months. Every time I get a cough, a headache, or a sore back that seems to linger, I immediately jump to the worst-case scenario that my cancer is back. I usually end up going to see my doctor, and he does everything possible to ease my fears and make sure I am comfortable and confident that I am okay. One thing I recently started doing, and I wish I had started sooner, is seeing a psychologist. I just go in and talk about my thoughts. It’s refreshing to have a completely unbiased third party listen to me talk. I am able to speak freely and that has been very helpful. I also started a blog which has been a really good way for me to get my feelings out. My only hope from anything I ever write is that I can help someone who may be going through what I was.

Overcoming My Fears and Moving Forward

My greatest fear if I were to die was that my kids, who had little time with me so far, would have no memory of me. There wasn’t enough time to make the memories, take the pictures, go on trips and experience life with them. That broke my heart over and over. But it also gave me a reason to really push through. My kids got me through this whole mess. I am so lucky that I made it through this, and I choose to live in the present and try to be there for my kids and my husband as much as I can because they have been such a huge support to me over the past few years. I have a different outlook life now, and I appreciate it a lot more than I did in the past. I take nothing for granted. I feel so fortunate that I get to watch my kids grow and experience life, that we get to go on adventures together. I am finally emotionally, mentally and physically in a place that allows me to be present for them. I do still have bad days, but there are more good days than bad. It’s definitely been a process, and there is no right or wrong way to navigate cancer with kids.

What do I have to look forward to now with my family? This year, we are learning to ski as a family. We will be heading to a local mountain called Big White located about four hours from us in Kelowna, BC. We are going to do all the fun things in the snow this year. This has something I have always wanted to do, so I am really looking forward to being able to do this as a family.

One thing I learned about myself through this experience is I am strong, and I am very capable. I have been to hell and back, but I came out on the other side and I am so proud of that. I make goals now and I achieve them because there was a time when I wasn’t able to do anything, I just had to take a break from life, and I am not interested in sitting out any more as a spectator. Life is short, enjoy it. Make the memories. Live it to it’s fullest potential. You’ve got this.

Click here to check out Rethink’s resources for young families facing breast cancer