The Other Identity Thief

February 23, 2023

My daughter Adrienne has been on her own since she left to go to university at the age of 18. We have certainly helped along the way, but geography meant that once she left she never came home again to live. She took such joy in apartment searches, meeting potential landlords, mentally planning the layout of each home she has lived in. The sense of accomplishment she felt at being able to make it work despite the occasional hiccup has been a source of pride for her, and for me as well. It was a significant part of her identity that she could look to for encouragement when things got rough.

Enter cancer.

When my child was diagnosed with cancer at 27 there was no partner in the picture. She knew she would need help to manage the tornado that her life was about to become so I moved into the living room of her one-bedroom apartment to be her physical and emotional support system during treatment. Adrienne and I have always been close and there is mutual respect in our relationship, so I was a natural choice as her caregiver and we did very well in an almost choreographed dance throughout my stay. I anticipated that anger would come my way whether it was because of something I had done or not, because there is a lot to be angry about when cancer strikes you at her age, so I was prepared for her to lash out. 

What I didn’t anticipate was that one of the biggest struggles she would have was not that I sometimes found myself falling back into the role of “mothering her”, sometimes watching her every move, trying to make sure she ate and slept, or even that I cut the butter wrong. It turned out that the hottest ember of her anger was what she was reminded of by my much needed day-to-day presence in her life.

That cancer had taken away her independence.

Surgeries meant that she couldn’t completely shower or dry herself off or get dressed on her own.  Chemotherapy meant that she couldn’t cook for herself because either she felt like garbage, or the smells of food being prepared sent her running for a basin. The mental fog she experienced made her uncertain about decisions and made her forget things that occasionally forced me to step in for safety reasons (like stove burners being left on). That same haziness coupled with the fatigue that came with radiation made it dangerous for her to drive, something she absolutely loves doing. She needed me to go with her to appointments to take notes and ask questions because she would get stuck in a cycle of trying to understand something that the oncologist said while he had moved on to other very important pieces of information. 

The one time that Adrienne felt well enough to spend some time on her own and I left to visit other family she had to call me back two days later because she had a fever. She had been so excited about finally feeling confident enough to be alone in her own space and it was a crushing blow to lose that freedom and I could see that on her face when I arrived to take her to the hospital.   

Cancer takes so many things, but the one we don’t hear enough about is that for many it steals very hard-fought independence. For those who don’t have someone like me in their lives, they often have to rely on systems of complete strangers to provide support when they are at their most vulnerable. For my child cancer was a very humbling experience. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for her if she was forced to accept that much intimate help from someone with whom trust and respect wasn’t already established. My life allowed me to drop everything and go be with her. That is not always the case for others, particularly financially. I strongly feel that there needs to be a caregiver benefit that will allow people with cancer more choice in who hands them the towel when they are naked and afraid.

Because sometimes their backs aren’t the only thing that need wiping.


Mother…Grandmother…Librarian…Military Spouse…Caregiver…Family Life Educator…take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California.  She has been married for 36 years to a Canadian Air Force Veteran and credits him with filling her life with adventure.  When Debbie Legault’s children look at family photos they often comment on how many different hairstyles she has had and that pretty much is her story, that her life has taken as many turns and led her down as many paths as her hair has changed! Her latest role is as the author of Mom…It’s Cancer, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter, Adrienne, as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Read more from Debbie on her experience as a caregiver to her daughter, here.

Header Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

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