Staying Strong in the Face of Breast Cancer and Motherhood
Cancer happens to ordinary families on ordinary days. The day I discovered that I had breast cancer I had watched the boys tussle over animal figures and wrestled them into their coats and kissed their messy, wet noses full of cold. Then, I dropped my oldest son at preschool and headed to the hospital appointment with my husband and baby boy.
I felt too numb to cry when I was diagnosed, which I hear is a very common reaction. And once the numbness had passed I determined that I would never cry for cancer because I would be too busy fighting it, surviving, and staying strong for my sons. I did cry later, of course, with anger and frustration-- but I didn’t let the tears control me.
Part of the fighting was developing a mental strength that I didn’t know I had. That's what would get me through the pain of treatment and the uncertainty of results days over and over again. I think the worst part was having to call my loved ones and share the news, particularly my parents. They fell apart and needed me to reassure them, to help to pick them up the pieces when I was trying so desperately to stay strong for myself.
I feel lucky in a lot of ways that my sons were so young and didn’t really understand what was happening. The baby was just happy as long as someone was cuddling him, whilst the pre-schooler took everything in stride: we told him mummy was poorly and would be spending lots of time getting better, and he accepted that without asking very many questions. I did feel unlucky to have developed cancer at all, though. Although breastfeeding does lower your risk of developing breast cancer, I felt that committing to it and motherhood would give me a sort of immunity. Well, it doesn't.
I don’t want to talk about treatment or hospitals – there are too many variables for me to really give you advice on those. I want to talk about how you stay strong and determined, because although it sounds like the worst cliché that everyone says, having a good, positive mental attitude really can help carry you through. It boils down to committing to three foundational blocks of support:
Develop Mental Resilience
You'll need this to process every setback and disappointment whilst still focusing on the end goal of survival and a cancer-free life is really difficult. But if you can find one positive in each day and look at every day you get to wake up as a good day, then you will be able to make it through.
Lean On Loved Ones
Focusing on your family or the loved ones who are supporting is also a great source of mental strength when you are having a wobble. If you run out of your own strength then borrow theirs!
Make Nice With The Other Cancer Folks
The people I met on my cancer journey sitting in waiting rooms, in treatment rooms and in online forums are some of the most resilient and mentally fortified people I have ever met in my life. We helped to keep each other strong simply by being there, even if we didn’t talk. Watching people knit, and read, and talk to their loved ones, for example, were the most powerful motivators for me because it showed that life would and did go on.
Cancer didn’t necessarily have to stop you from getting where you wanted to be or from achieving your goals-- it just tries to slow you down. Two years after my cancer journey began, I was lucky enough to be given the all-clear and was free to continue with my other journey, the most exciting I have ever embarked on: the journey of motherhood. Although I wish I had never experienced cancer and that it had never touched my family, it has made us appreciate what we have and tackle life with renewed vigor and a stronger determination to make the most of every moment.
Here are some resources that helped me:
- "Courage In the Face of Cancer." Huffington Post
- “30 Ways to Stay Positive When You Have Cancer.” What Next
- “Developing Resilience and Mentally Strong Habits: Dos and Don’ts.” Recovery.org
- “Talking With Your Children About Breast Cancer.” Breast Cancer Care UK
- “Understanding Breast Cancer.” MacMillian Cancer Support
- “How I Stayed Fearless and Fabulous In the Face of Breast Cancer.” Greatist
What is something that cancer forced you to focus on or improve about yourself?