This Mother's Day, we spoke to four mums in order to hear about how they and their children coped with a breast cancer diagnosis.
It’s something you always fear
When you have young children, the worst thing you can imagine is something happening to them. But the next worst thing is something happening to you, because you don’t want to leave them behind. That’s the biggest worry as a parent.
When I was diagnosed, my eldest was four and my youngest had just turned one. I was still breastfeeding, so that was a factor that was impacted by my diagnosis, because I had to stop quite suddenly. It was slowing down anyway, but the option to make that decision myself was taken away from me – which was quite nasty.
I felt guilty
It’s very physically tiring already, having two young children that still need you. But the mental impact of knowing that life is so fragile – it just hits you in the face.
Treatment, as well, made it so that I was not always capable of looking after them.
When my husband’s parents stepped in to help, I felt guilty about it. The children had a great time, of course – they were with their granny and granddad. But, as a mother, I struggled to let it go.
But having children while going through chemotherapy is almost a curse and a blessing at once. My husband works abroad a lot, so I had to be there for my kids. It’s hard as you’re so tired all the time, but you still have a reason to get out of bed.
It is a bittersweet experience
If you go through a traumatic experience, it’s a game changer. Even before I had cancer, a few years earlier, I lost my sister. It was so sad. And my older son, too, was born 10 weeks premature. So those two things had already given me this perspective.
It’s bittersweet, in a way. When I did fun things with my boys, I would feel a mixture of wanting to cry because I would get thoughts like, ‘Are these memories that I’m making with them the ones they’ll have of me if I’m not going to be here?’ At the same time, I would feel gratitude of being able to enjoy the moment with them.
My advice to other parents in this situation is to just keep swimming. It’ll be hard, but it’s doable.
My son struggled with the news
I have a son and a stepson. When I found out I had a grade three invasive ductal carcinoma, it was difficult to tell them.
My stepson was around 19, so he understood what was going on, and he tried to support me as best as he could. But my nine-year-old didn’t react as well. He couldn’t express himself properly. He bottled things up, became a bit more naughty.
I later understood this was just his way of dealing with things, of trying to get my time and attention.
I couldn’t be present for my family
Unfortunately, I was completely zapped by chemotherapy. I couldn’t be present for my family like I usually was. I was in bed more often than not. At worst, I would be out of it for close to a week before I could get back enough energy to function normally.
On top of that, I had a lot of emotional and psychological trauma. I lost my hair and eyebrows, my fingernails and toenails, which really affected my confidence.
I am so grateful for support
I was very lucky to get the support I did from my husband. He travels a lot for work, so sometimes he couldn’t be there for me. However, he was there when I was diagnosed, holding my hand. And he was always available when I was having chemotherapy – even if he was only able to drop me off and pick me up after. He stepped in to help whenever he could.
Eventually, I had to tell my mum what was happening.
I had already lost a brother and sister, and my dad had died not long before my diagnosis. Because of that, it didn’t feel right telling her over the phone. So I waited until I could see her face-to-face: that way she could see I was having treatment and that I was going to be ok.
Having her around was so helpful. It was good to have more support and someone I could confide in. Even so, I would edit what I said to her. I think we’re all like that with our mothers – we don’t want to worry them.
Seek help where you can
If you’re going through breast cancer you need all the support you can get. You shouldn’t hide from your loved ones. If possible, you should talk to your children honestly, and be as open as you can about what you’re going through.
Your children can even be a great source of support. They might not be able to physically do things for you, but they can still support you emotionally. We can underestimate them. My son understood what was happening, he just didn’t know how to express his emotions.
Let people get involved. Let them know if you’re not able to cope. When you are able to be present for people, be present. But if you can’t, be honest about that.
I felt stunned and confused
When I was first diagnosed, I felt stunned with irrational thoughts of death. I wondered how I was going to tell my children.
The one positive thing was that my breast care nurse gave me the best advice I’ve had, which was: ‘this is your cancer and is unique to you, don’t google or compare it to anyone else’.
My husband was with me at the diagnosis, he was also shocked. We just went and had a coffee and sat in silence. We were on autopilot.
Telling my children was difficult
My children Sarah and Daniel were, at the time, aged 33 and 29. Although adults, to me they are my children - and to them I am their mum, with whom they share thoughts and worries.
My son was coming home for Christmas from London with his girlfriend and my daughter lives locally. I wanted to tell them both at the same time and face to face. When I told them, the day after my diagnosis, they were shocked and upset. However, not once did they look on the dark side. In fact my daughter said that if I lost my hair then I would ‘rock the bald look’, which helped ease the situation!
My family helped me through
My family all played a great part in helping me through my treatment.
At first, my son was in denial and couldn’t bring himself to talk to me about it. My daughter talked to him about his feelings and that helped a lot – they are very close and this made them even more so.
My granddaughter was five at the time and she was great with the situation. I explained to her that I had cancer and that I was having ‘magic put into my body which would make my hair fall out but would make cancer go away’. As with all children, she took it at face value and when she had a question I would give her an honest answer.
My advice to other mothers in this situation is to try to be honest and open and discuss it with your children. If they are young, then get help and advice on how to talk to them.
I felt so responsible
When I was diagnosed, I was married with a two-year-old son and five months pregnant with my second child. It was a really scary time because I felt so responsible for the life I was carrying inside me, and had to think about her as well as me when it came to treatment options.
As a result, breast cancer had a huge impact on our family life.
My son was too young to understand but we told him as much as we could and we had a book from Breast Cancer Now called Mummy's Lump, which helped a lot. He still asks me to read it sometimes now. I find it hard as it takes me back to when I was going through treatment.
Although he didn't really understand much of what was going on, all the sadness and fear in the house must have filtered through to him and I worry about that sometimes.
I worry for my daughter
I also found out that I have the BRCA2 gene mutation while I was still pregnant. I knew I was having a daughter and I knew there was a chance she would have it too.
It breaks my heart to know that she might have to go through all of this.
I try not to dwell on it as she can't be tested until she's an adult. Right now, she's three and she's so perfect - I hate to think there might be something in her genetics that could harm her in the future.
Cancer stole my time with my children
Being diagnosed while you have young children is hard. It's a busy and stressful time of life, as well as being full of wonder and joy, and there isn't much room for things like surgery and chemo.
Obviously, you have to make room for them, but it's at the expense of other things, like trips to the park and adventures in the woods. Cancer stole things from me that I'll never get back.
If you know someone in that position, and you're able to, offer help. It could be anything: a home-cooked meal, an hour's babysitting, a cup of tea and a chat. Those things make all the difference.
Need to talk to someone? Our breast care nurses and highly trained staff on our free and confidential Helpline are here for you, your family and friends. So, whether you have been diagnosed with breast cancer yourself, or have questions about a loved one- we’re ready to listen. Call 0808 800 6000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org