By Christine Pechulis
Dear Mom Whose Child is Newly-Diagnosed with Cancer,
- “Cancer Mom" -- I know you’re not yet used to that title. It’s a title I never wanted, either. None of us did. I still remember the first time that someone called me a "cancer mom" -- my reaction was reminiscent of a shudder. The title feels like a shoe that doesn't quite fit right. A waistband that is too tight and uncomfortable. It hurts. You want to keep tugging at it to make it feel better. You eventually want to rip it off. Well mama, you now belong to a club to which you never wanted an invite. BUT, there IS a club. There are many of us (too many of us) who have walked this rutty road before you. And, thanks to the world of social media and the internet, we are easier than ever before to find. Don't hesitate to reach out. Are you a cancer mom in New Zealand that needs a shoulder to cry on at 1:00 am? I'm your wing-woman. I've got your back.
- Go ahead: cry, scream, and rage. Don't be afraid to drop to your knees -- most of us have. More than a few times. I spent quite a bit of time on my knees, head in my hands. Let it out and get it out. Your deepest fear as a parent is just about as close as reality can get right now. But then, somehow, someway, dig deep and gather your strength. Wipe your tears. Put on a brave mask. Leave those tears in the shower in private, just for now. Your child needs you -- right now more than ever before.
- Childhood cancer is a family diagnosis. Moms suffer. Dads suffer. Siblings suffer. Take care of all your kids as you are able .... they're scared too and need you, still.
- You will begin this lengthy journey in the hands of complete strangers -- during the worst possible time imaginable. You probably haven't realized it yet, but those so-called strangers? Those doctors and nurses and aides? They will quickly become a sort of patched-together family for you and your child. They will hold you up (figuratively and literally sometimes) and walk hand-in-hand with you from this day forward. Lean on them. They will be your pillars of support and your child's cheerleaders during the hardest of times. They will be your little one's advocates and they will help you learn to advocate as well.
- Sweet friend, I wish I could promise you that your child is going to survive this. That you are all going to come out of this undamaged. But, I can't promise you any of those things. What I can promise you? You WILL have support. Many times from people and places that you don't expect. Unfortunately, some of your friends will become strangers. But, many strangers will become more than friends. You will see light, love, kindness, and grace in that support. You will feel love and prayers lifting you and your loved ones up daily. This will help -- in some very small part -- to give you strength on days that you feel completely empty.
- If you have a do-er in your family or group of friends (you know who I mean), let them help. Let someone in your trusted circle take the reins and arrange things like: a schedule of meals, rides, carpooling, childcare, house-cleaning, or any other everyday tasks that do not need to take up space in your head right now. You've got more than enough on your plate.
- And now, when you have a moment, please toss your pride aside. If you're anything like me, you're not going to like this next one. Ask your hospital for resources -- financial resources. They are out there. There are so many organizations, large and small, that help families like ours. And believe me, I get it. I am a "help-er", not a "help-ee". I don't like asking for or receiving help. But friend, take it from me, please do it. These times will be so financially tough on your family and that is simply an added stress that you do not need right now. Many charities will help with utility bills, meals, gas, and other financial needs. Reach out to your hospital social worker; they can guide you. Do it sooner rather than later.
- I know without any doubt that this one is NOT a priority for you right now, BUT I also cannot stress this enough: get your child -- and especially YOURSELF -- some counseling and mental health support. PLEASE. During treatment, moms like us put on a brave face and move with stoicism and determination from one appointment to another. From one procedure or scan to another. From one course of treatment to another. We simply DO. Take it from me (as I have learned the hard way) once treatment ends all of those emotions that you've pushed aside for a year or more (fear, shock, anger, anxiety, and so many more) come bubbling up to the surface. You are left with the aftermath. The sooner you start dealing with it, the better. Take care of yourself. Like the airplane flight attendant says, "secure your oxygen mask first and then assist the other person." Right now, this may seem like an act of selfishness. The truth? If we pass out from lack of oxygen, we're unable to help those around us. Let go of the guilt and practice a little self-care.
- Lastly, start to work on gratitude. It can be tough - I get it. But try to appreciate the small things, because the small things really are the big things. You may have heard this kind of quote before. But, being the mom to a kid with cancer changes all of that -- it makes it real. We have learned first-hand how precious life really is, and how quickly it can all be taken away. Cancer is a teacher. A good teacher. I honestly can't really say that I like her, but I have now come to respect her. She has taught me some pretty valuable things over the last two years. I took a lot for granted pre-cancer, just rolling along, living my life. I have a choice now, as do you. How you decide to live out each day is a choice. You can choose to be angry, bitter, or hurt, or you can choose to live and be happy and appreciate those small things, each and every day.
A Fellow Cancer Mom
On March 27, 2018, my soon-to-be 15-year-old son Nate was diagnosed with Olfactory Neuroblastoma (large malignant tumor in his sinus cavity). After a 12-hour surgery at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh and a 12-hour surgery at UPMC Presbyterian, we traveled back and forth to Beaumont Hospital In Royal Oak Michigan every week in the summer of 2018 so that he could receive specialized proton radiation therapy. As of October 2018, he has been NED (No Evidence of Disease). His next scan is one week away. Prayers, positive vibes, happy thoughts, good mojo are all very much appreciated.