“You’re so strong.”
“I don’t know how you get through this.”
“I just can’t imagine what you are going through.”
Just a few phrases that are lobbed at us cancer moms. Oh, the strength! Oh, the ability to do hard stuff! Your family is so strong! Keep up the fight! Guess what? We are tired. We are weak. We are terrified. We wear T-shirts with our kids names on them, and call them fighters and warriors. As cancer moms, we have to pump our children full of toxic medicine, catch their puke in buckets, hold them down for pokes and dressing changes, send them off to surgery, just to cry in the corner of the waiting room. We spend days in the hospital, sleeping next to their beds in cots, surfing the web for success stories when we just can’t sleep, because we know that the nurse is coming in soon, or their results will be posted on their record. And sometimes, it’s for nothing. Then, we have to call them angels, give them wings, memorialize them, run 5Ks with their names and faces splattered across our hearts and in our minds. We are a community of broken mommas.
I still remember the exact time that it hit me that the rest of my life will be about childhood cancer. It was a summer day, and we were in the middle of a two week hospital stay with our daughter, Hannah. I was pulling her through the hallways of the hospital in a little red wagon, the kind that should be used to take a kid to the park, or perhaps loaded with toys for the backyard. Instead, my daughter sat on a pillow, lines of chemo running through her access line directly to her heart, pumped all over her body. She was bald, beautiful in pink Peppa Pig Pajamas. We stopped at each nurses’ station so she could shyly con the nurses for more stickers. I pulled the wagon with one hand, her IV pole with the other. And as we turned at the end of the hallway for another go, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This journey as a cancer mom will never be over. I will never finish the lap and walk away. It will never be completely in the past. Even if she kicked every last neuroblastoma cell out of her body, my life will forever be centered around this beast that tried to kill my daughter. It destroyed me. It destroyed the innocence of my motherhood. My daughter’s own body was waging a war against her, and I was powerless to stop it. I could only rub her back or make her comfortable, or give her a few minutes out of bed in a little red wagon.
Sometimes, us cancer moms can only find understanding in the presence of others who have gone through the same trauma. We see the reflection of pain behind each other’s smiles. We wonder if we’ve hidden it well enough to pass in the everyday world. Sometimes we slip, and our pain and guilt over our child’s suffering spills over, perhaps over seeing another child with beautiful long locks in the grocery store. I smile at children who are obviously in their terrible threes, remembering painfully that my daughter spent all of age 3 in cancer treatment. I get flashes of PTSD traveling the road to the hospital, even if I’m just passing by. I know the exact windows on the side of the hospital that we used to look out, wishing for our journey to be over, even if it just meant a few nights at home in our own beds. Now, I drive by, acutely aware there are other families looking out those same windows. I know that my life will be peppered with amazing stories of survival, along with children who will be taken too soon. Funerals with tiny coffins. Teens buried with their baseball or football jerseys. It’s terrifying.
So, we aren’t strong. We are weathered. Beaten against the jagged, rocky edges of childhood cancer. We stand up each time, go at it again, because that it is what we do. And to be sure, we don’t want you to imagine our lives, or put yourself in our shoes. It’s not something we want for any of you. We just want cures, and research, and treatments that give our children 100% chance to be adults. And for those children who don’t make it, we want their lives to matter. We want the world to pause, just for a moment, and acknowledge that we can do more for kids with cancer. Then, maybe someday, we will only need little red wagons for beautiful, cancer free strolls to the swingsets of the world.
This post is in honor of Drew Becker, his fierce cancer mom, and Warrior Wagons.