THE JOY OF giving birth to my third and probably last child was quickly overshadowed by a stage four breast cancer diagnosis at three weeks postpartum.
To begin with, I had no lump or family history, so when I was concerned about a red spot I was convinced it was pregnancy related. I felt foolish mentioning it to the doctor, however it was to prove my saving as I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of inflammatory breast cancer.
I spent the next year undergoing chemotherapy, experiencing continuous nausea, hair loss, the onset of early menopause, neuropathy, shortness of breath, the inability to exercise, constant fear, a mastectomy, an emotional breakdown, exhaustion and then radio therapy.
My cancer meant I had to offer up my baby to family to mind
My cancer stole my maternity leave from me. It stole my confidence, my independence, my joy and then my breast. I had to offer up my baby to family to mind. I was unable to look after my other children, cook the dinner, do the shopping, barely even wash myself.
All tasks that were very simple in my previous life.
At 37, I never expected to be unable to participate fully in life. I didn’t deserve cancer. But who does?
I lived in fear. Fear of dying, fear of the treatment, fear of surgery; fear of and for my children, fear of the future. I had lost trust in myself, my body and in life. Questioning why I brought three children into the world when this is what was on offer.
What would happen to them if I was not around?
The inevitable task of telling my other two children (aged five and three) what was happening made it more harrowing and more real. Some say I was lucky in that they were too young to really understand and that the baby would not remember anything. It didn’t make me feel any better.
My children realised something was wrong
The girls became aware that something was wrong. They told their Nana, that Mammy was upset because she had a spot and started asking questions about why I was crying all the time.
In my other/previous life, I am a teacher and I keep things simple to get the basic message across. I believe in honesty and openness. Children, though small, are not stupid and can get quite concerned when they are not kept in the loop. In stages, I told the girls what was happening to me.
I told them mammy was sick and that my hair would fall out because of the special medicine. My five-year-old told me that was okay and I could borrow her red Ariel (very knotted) wig. I wasn’t long before they compared me to the baby and I was soon in a hair growing competition with my son.
My kids were upset about my ‘sick boobie’
After my mastectomy they were upset that the doctor had taken my sick ‘boobie’ but relieved when I told them he would give me a new one later. I never mentioned the word cancer until they heard it on TV and asked what it meant. I told them it was the sickness Mammy had and that was the end of it. They were very confident, that while I was ‘sick’ I was going to be okay. They never feared for the future; they just accepted it for what it was.
There is a lesson in that for me and for us all: to accept what is today and not to be thinking too far ahead into the future. Today I am healthy. I have three healthy and happy children. I have a very supportive husband, family and friends. I don’t know where I go from here but that is not today’s concern.
Though I couldn’t even do simple everyday tasks, my brain was mapping out what was happening and I decided to write a short book; ‘Explaining to kids: Mammy has Breast Cancer’.
As I was writing it, I knew nothing of the process involved in treatment plans, nothing of their effect or that afterwards I would still have a healing journey ahead of me.
Writing to help others
This booklet helped me in grieving my losses of the past year and I wanted to help others in a similar position, I couldn’t do this through medicine, but I could help other children of cancer patients, who were also suffering. I feel that involving and informing children generally helps them cope better with a parent’s illness and if I can help just one family it will be worthwhile.
Hopefully from my brush with adversity and this little booklet my children have learned that cancer is not to be feared. Children learn from example so mine know it is okay to ask for help.
Today I live with uncertainty, but I always did, I just didn’t realise it.
Yvonne Crawley is a mother of three and cancer survivor, from Drogheda, Co. Louth. Her booklet Explaining to Kids: Mammy has Breast Cancer’ is now free to download from Amazon.
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