Throughout motherhood, when asking for advice, there’s never a shortage of opinions, facts and anecdotes for everything from getting newborns to sleep to dealing with teenagers’ emotions. Just sifting through the available information on raising children can be exhausting, let alone actually living the role of mom each day.
In the moments when they don’t feel stretched thin as a parent, mothers often find themselves drained from life’s other roles: wife, employee, volunteer, coach, friend, sister, and daughter. When a mother hears the words, “you have cancer,” feeling overwhelmed seems like an understatement. This new role of cancer patient becomes a huge, new priority. There isn’t an enormous amount of information available about parenting with cancer, and even if there were, most women would be too busy to spend time sorting through it.
The following women have been through cancer and now, as survivors, are sharing their words of wisdom with other moms facing cancer. Here are the 6 things they want you to know:
1. Telling your children will be difficult, but they can handle it.
Telling children that their mom has cancer can be an important but incredibly difficult step. “Sometimes parents think that protecting their children from difficult information is in [their] best interest. However, children are good at sensing that something isn’t right. They may overhear adult conversations about their loved ones’ cancer,” says Kathy Caucig, LCPC, Mind-Body Therapist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Zion, Illinois. Caucig advises that giving children information at their level of understanding can help them handle the news.
Liv Arnold, mother to Margaux, 8, and Whittaker, 5, from Grayslake, Illinois, received a breast cancer diagnosis when her children were just toddlers. “Since my kids were little when I was diagnosed, we told them honestly, but age appropriately: ‘Mommy is sick with cancer but I’m working with great doctors that are going to give me very strong medicine,’” Arnold explains. “We also told them that Mommy needs to rest a lot. They would come into my room and lay with me, giving me kisses. Those are sweet memories of a very difficult time.”
Nikki Ausdemore, breast cancer survivor and mother of four children ages 9 to 18 from Mesa, Arizona, suggests continually communicating with your children. “We’ve had many conversations with our kids and have been very open about what to expect, what it will be like or what it could be like,” Ausdemore says. “I think it helps to prepare them emotionally.”
2. It’s OK to focus on your needs.
As a mom, it’s easy to put your needs last. But after receiving a cancer diagnosis, you may need to focus on yourself and your body’s needs.
“Self-care can mean different things to people,” explains Caucig. “Self-care could be as straightforward as looking at something fun and interesting online, coloring an adult coloring book, sitting on the porch, watching TV comedies or reading a good book.”
“I needed to put myself first – as selfish as it sounds. As a mom, I often put everybody else’s needs first and get wrapped up with who needs to be where and when,” says Ausdemore. “I needed to focus on myself. That’s all I had the energy for, and that’s OK.”
Ausdemore reminds other mothers to make yourself a priority: “Give yourself the permission to do whatever it takes to get through cancer. In a family, we all have our different times of need. When those needs arise, we all pull together to get through it. Sometimes being strong means taking care of yourself first and foremost.”
3. Rely on your friends and family.
Regardless of how independent you were in the past, allowing loved ones to support you during cancer treatment can help manage everyday tasks, especially when you lack energy.
“My husband Chris and I are not people who like to ask for help. We usually just make it work, but we knew we had to accept the help my parents offered,” Ausdemore says. “Within six weeks, my parents moved closer to us. My mom came to almost every appointment, did my grocery shopping, laundry, and house cleaning. My dad, who is always jumping at every chance to spend time with his grandkids, took them to practice and fed them along the way.”
Relying on her husband Nick throughout cancer treatment strengthened Arnold’s relationship: “My husband is amazing. Going through this together has made us a stronger couple and a more loving family. I am so lucky.”
Family can also be your inspiration. Jean Roberts, breast cancer survivor from Cleveland, Texas, says her brand new granddaughter motivated her to keep fighting. “I know I not only had this enormous challenge to face, but I also had the opportunity to be the grandma I had always hoped I could be. So, during chemo, I took care of my granddaughter Abbigail, which brought me much strength, love and courage.”
4. Cancer changes you as a mother.
There’s no doubt that cancer can change you as a person, but also can change your perspective as a parent.
“Focusing on family and children – what is most important to many mothers’ lives – can help a mom cope with the changes caused by a cancer diagnosis,” notes Caucig. “Being flexible, although an often-used phrase, is a way to aid mothers in coping with making adjustments in their lives.”
“I realized that a spilled cup of milk or a messy house doesn’t matter,” says Shawna Bunch, breast cancer survivor from Gulf Breeze, Florida, mother to Peyton, 10, Easton, 8, and Berkleigh, 7.
Arnold agrees. She says, “I feel that I’m more patient because I feel so lucky and blessed to have more time with my family.”
Cancer also can give a new perspective on life goals for you and your children. Two years after her mother Jean went through cancer treatment, Briana Roberts, a native of Cleveland, Texas, received a breast cancer diagnosis that changed her outlook on raising her daughter: “I want to teach Abbigail to chase her dreams, to be fearless in her attitude toward life and to cling to God’s hope and promise. I want her to know that no matter what life throws her way, she will always be strong.”
5. Look to your faith for inspiration.
Finding peace after a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, especially when you’re worried about your children and what your diagnosis means to them. Many survivors suggest turning to their faith in God to help them find peace and strength during difficult moments.
“During personal struggles, many people may reach out to God and find comfort in something greater than themselves. In building their relationship with God, people may tend to focus on what they have. They often find gratitude in the simple things in life, in being alive, and being able to be there for their loved ones and their children, for their growing relationship with God, and their faith community,” says Caucig.
“When you’re as close with your mother as I am, hearing she has cancer is one of the most difficult things to accept. I didn’t want to believe it and I spent months crying and scared. I didn’t want to lose my best friend. Her journey led me to a strengthened relationship with God,” says Briana Roberts. “I have faced mountains I could never imagine facing if I had not been diagnosed. God has given me the courage to fight for what I want and need in life and to minister and help others.”
Like her daughter, Jean Roberts also leaned on faith: “I feel that I have gained such an awareness of the real suffering and pain in people from all walks of life caused by this disease. I truly believe that total healing is now possible and that God really heals.”
6. You can do it!
More than anything else, these survivors want you to know that you can persevere through cancer.
“When you’re tired, fight. When you want to give up, fight. When they say there’s no hope, fight,” says Brianna Roberts. “Sometimes the house won’t get cleaned, your kids might have days where they are less than perfect angels, or you might feel like your whole world is falling down. There will be days when you don’t feel like the mother you should be. Don’t listen to the voice of the enemy. You’re not just a good mother. You’re a great mother. You are a mother going through cancer. You are a soldier.”
“I would tell other mothers going through cancer that you will make it through this and you will be stronger and a better mother because of it,” says Bunch.
Simply put, Arnold says, “You can do it! You have more strength than you know!”
No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.