I Am a Cancer Mom, But Please, Don’t Call Me Strong

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“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 polneuroblastoma, brave, cancer, cancer free, cancer mom, chemo, chemo therapy, childhood cancer, community, cures, diagnosis, doctors, fight, fighter, good fight, hospital, hospital bed, medicine, nurses, PTSD, radiation, remission, research, scans, Surgery, trauma, treatments, waiting room, warriore 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.   

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8 Responses to I Am a Cancer Mom, But Please, Don’t Call Me Strong

  1. Jean Laing September 22, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

    What a brave, beautiful story. Thank you for sharing this with us. We lost a great niece to brain cancer in October 2013. We know other cancer moms and we pray constantly for cures for every type of cancer known to man. J

  2. Anna P September 25, 2017 at 11:11 am #

    Giant hugs to your daughter, you, and your family. Our daughter was diagnosed on 9/7/17, and I can’t thank you enough for this article, and how much I’m feeling this right now. I cried when my daughter asked me to brush her hair, and how it fell out in clumps after her second chemo treatment. Our hospital in Indianapolis is working with the Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis, and they have been amazing. I wish I could buy you a coffee/hot chocolate and give you a big hug.

  3. Donna September 25, 2017 at 8:44 pm #

    Wow! This brings it all back. I feel so blessed that ours survived (Hodgkins Lymphoma, stage 4). It will be 5 years this Christma’s since her last treatment, a stem cell transplant. Now she is in the Peace Corp living in Panama! God has amazed us through it all.
    I do remember our view from the hospital window, and I wonder who might be there right now, fighting. We are forever changed, but I believe for the good.
    Hugs….

  4. Sharon September 26, 2017 at 6:15 pm #

    I am a cancer mom. I’m grateful you shared a lot of the emotions I felt and sometimes still feel. Thank you

  5. Lisa M. September 26, 2017 at 8:12 pm #

    How similar are our thoughts, feelings and fears. At the age of seven my sweet daughter, Sophia, battled a rare subtype of Leukemia for over 2 1/2 years. Then to top it off she had to continue her battle against PTSD brought on by her intense fight for life. Both equally devastating. She and I will never be the same. Thank you for helping put a name to the feelings I get when I pass the hospital, see a medicine bottle, or watch a young girl with long brown hair playing . My family’s timeline is now marked by “before” or “after” cancer. Not the norm, but it is what it is.

    Thank you for sharing.

  6. Danna September 26, 2017 at 9:00 pm #

    Your post brought back so many memories that only other cancer moms can relate to. My daughter was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer July 3, 2015. She was 15. December will be two years since her last treatment but the fear of the “what if’s” is always there. I’m not strong though. I perfected the act so she would stay positive and strong. I have cried alone so, so many times. The guilt of not being able to take away her pain and sadness will never go away. We are forever changed.

  7. Alli N. October 7, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

    I’m a contributor at Birmingham Moms Blog, and I am also a cancer mom. So related to the words you wrote, . “It destroyed me. It destroyed the innocence of my motherhood.” Took me a long long time to even look at pictures of him/us “before” his cancer – bc it reminded me of the innocence I no longer had. I missed those people, the ones who hadn’t yet been beat up by cancer treatment. Who lived life free of heart ache, fear, and cancer. thanks so much for sharing your story ❤️

  8. Loretta H. November 4, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    What beautiful words to describe what many of us have lived. My daughter was diagnosed with brain tumors at age 5 months. ALL doctors predicted her death before age 1. Melanie and God had other plans and she lived 24 years. Over her lifetime she received 17 years of chemo. We know so well how it feels to be beaten over the jagged rocks of childhood cancer. We feel so very tired. The grief we carry for not only our daughter’s death, but also for all of the difficulties she endured while on this earth, will be with us each day for the rest of our lives. It is time for change —–time for the world to take notice of the suffering these children endure. Fund research to put an end to childhood cancer.

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