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When Mom Gets Cancer

By Jane Schwartzman

In the car alone, struggling to see as my eyes filled with tears, I just needed to get home and hold my kids tight and never let them go. How the hell was I going to tell them?! The fear bomb I was going to have to drop on them was worse than the fear I was having myself about the unknown cancer in my body. They would never forget this. How do you soften the words "Mom has cancer"?

As a mom, you always worry about how to protect your children. But on May 10th, 2006, all the "stuff" I had been trying to protect them from seemed ever-so-insignificant. On that day, my doctor told me that he found a lump in my left breast and that he needed do a biopsy. I had known that something in my body was not quite right. Ironically, I felt nothing different in my left breast, but my right breast felt tender and full. When I first took my concerns to my gynecologist, she didn't find anything abnormal in either breast, and told me not to worry. It still amazes me that she could have missed a 1.6 cm tumor in my left breast. But when I left her office, I was not convinced that nothing was wrong - I stuck with my intuition and made an appointment for a mammogram.

When I walked up to the volunteer desk at the Piper Building, the same desk I have faced for the last 10 years of getting regular mammograms, I had a very strong feeling that this mammogram was going to show something other than "normal." So, when the doctor there told me about the lump, I was not completely surprised. After the needle biopsy, which was performed immediately, I drove away from Piper with my mind lingering on the worst case scenario. Fear and panic kicked in, and through my tears I called my husband Jon. His calm voice and words of optimism were comforting, but I could hear fear in his voice as well. I tried, however, to put it all out of my mind until the next day when I would get the call with the biopsy results.

As planned, the nurse called shortly after noon on that Thursday. I remember thinking how strange it was that she asked, "Is it a good time to talk?" It crossed my mind that if I hang up on her I won't hear the words she is going to tell me and maybe this won't be happening. "Your tumor is malignant," said the voice through the receiver; everything else she was saying went in one ear and out the other. The visual of the word cancer kept flashing in my mind. I went into panic mode and all I remember asking her was if she thought I was going to die.

After a busy night of hockey practice, Jon and I sat down with our kids, Max and Leah for our "Mommy needs to talk to you" moment. My goal was to sound strong and be honest, and then slowly let them know that I too was scared. Keeping my eyes wide open to hold back any tears, I began with "I went to the doctor today, and I need to have surgery in a few weeks." Leah shouted out, with complete panic in her voice, "What!" and then "Why?" I continued speaking, trying not to fall apart. "I will be okay." I told them - not sure who I was trying to convince more, the kids or me. I have a bump in my boob that the doctor wants to take out. My sweet Leah's face immediately froze and her eyes began to well with tears, she wanted to cry, but was trying to be so strong. Max started to ask all the questions he heard over the last year as we had been treating our cancer-stricken dog Cali, who had been put to sleep one month earlier.

"Is your bump benign or malignant?" Max asked first. "Will you need chemo or radiation?" Not knowing if at ten years old he fully understood what he was asking, made it a bit easier for me to keep talking. I explained what my surgery was going to do, and that I was most likely going to undergo chemotherapy and what that would be like. Knowing that they were thinking about Cali's outcome, I assured them, even promised them, that I would be o.k. This was just a bump (literally) in my road!

I held them tight as I was screaming inside. I was honest with them about my fears, focusing mostly on the fact that I had never had surgery and at that moment that was a very true fear for me. I wanted Max and Leah to ask me more questions or tell me how they felt, but Leah was quiet. She was "thinking." And Max looked like he was absorbing every word I said, and knowing Max as I do, he was most likely telling himself, "O.k., this is what is going to happen and then my mom will be good."

On the day of my surgery, Max calmly said to me "Momma, this is the last day you will have to live with cancer, and then you will be just fine."

At first the kids did not really want to share with their friends what was going on, but the more they began to talk about it, the more comfortable they became sharing their experiences with a select few. It was interesting for me to hear about and watch how their friends reacted. Some of the kids just stared as I would make my way around the halls at school. This drove Leah crazy. When children said kind words to Max and Leah, I think it made them feel somewhat awkward, in a strange spot light kind of way, but that felt better than hearing nothing at all. Neither one wanted to feel any different than any of their friends. Leah was in tears on a few occasions after finding out that kids were talking about her mom's cancer behind her back instead of talking with her about it. We talked about the fact that her friends did not do or say anything to hurt her intentionally; it was just hard for them to understand this "cancer thing," and that people are afraid of it and don't know how to handle it.

I reflected back 23 years, when I was 17 and my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. How panicked I felt, knowing that my mother's sister had died after a long and courageous battle against this very disease. I often spoke to Max and Leah about the importance of expressing their emotions and being o.k. with feeling scared.

The weeks following my surgery (double mastectomy) were the most difficult for me to be the mom they wanted and needed, and I wanted to be. I couldn't do much for myself let alone anyone else. It was very hard for me to get my mind around that. I am the caretaker! I wanted my family involved in as much of the healing process as they wanted to be. I followed their lead. They were great at helping me get around, getting me snacks, helping me get dressed, helping in anyway they could or wanted. It was wonderful when they would run off to play and be busy and not worry about me - go have fun and be free - free of guilt and worries. Sometimes they could do that and sometimes reality would hit them and they would run back to me to make sure that I was okay - the worry back on their faces.

Once the chemo started, we all had new challenges. I knew the chemo would wreak havoc on me, which meant havoc on the family. Talking with the kids about the possible effects to come (hair loss, nausea, and mommy being tired most of the time) was hard for me to come to terms with, and it was all coming at me so quickly without a lot of time to think or process. Let's see, someone stole my boobs and now they were going to fill me with poison and make me sick. Furthermore, the kids saw me regaining my strength after the surgery so it was even harder to warn them that the chemo would set me back again.

The biggest worry for Max and Leah was the hair loss. People would stare and know that something was wrong their mom. Seeing my wig and all the hats and scarves I was accumulating gave us all a few laughs and giggles. The kids looked great in my new wig. We decided that when it was time, they would help shave my head. After my second treatment, I cut my hair that usually hung to my mid-back to just above my shoulders. It was a great way to ease into "bald." In retrospect, I wish I had done this before my mastectomy or right after surgery, and would highly recommend to other women with mid-length or long hair to make this change early on. Since the kids had only known me with long hair, this was a big change for them. It was a fun look for the six days it lasted, but as I was losing my remaining hair by the clumpfulls, shave night came quickly.

The kids were apprehensive; they had that sick feeling in their stomachs and the deer in the headlights expression on their faces. Now it didn't seem like so much fun as the reality that mommy was going to be bald sunk in. However, this process did get the kids to discuss how they felt about having a bald mom.

It was clear how Leah felt. She hated it, was embarrassed by it. So much that when people would stare, she would mentally pretend that she was not with me. This lead to many discussions about not judging people, and having compassion for people knowing that even though someone looks different than you, they can be very much like you on the inside. These were not new conversations, but now they really hit home - too close to home for a nine-year-old terrified of losing her mother.

Max, on the other hand, was not worried about what other people thought of my bald head. For him, as well as for Leah and Jon, the hardest part was that my baldness was a constant reminder that I was sick. On the few occasions that I did wear my wig it gave Jon and the kids a momentary escape from "seeing" my cancer. Unfortunately for them, I was not a big wig girl. I felt beautiful in it, but it was hot and uncomfortable, so I usually opted for the bandanas and baseball hats.

One year later, with lots of curls on my head, I look at my family and am grateful that we are all still intact, stronger and closer than before. Survivors! All of us. Our smiles are back, and our minds are no longer consumed with worry. Max and Leah will never forget the fear, or the disruptiveness of having a mom with cancer, but we all have learned many important life lessons. It is a journey you would never wish for, but one through which we were all able to find the love, strength and courage to help each other cope.

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