By Ashley Saaranen
Parenting is a bit of a sh#tshow. I love my children immensely but it’s a crazy trip that nobody gives you instructions for and you’re just set on your way trying to do the very best you can. I’ve been a teacher for 11 years and I really know other people’s children but my own are a whole new ballgame. They are these beautiful sweet little babies that we are solely responsible for raising.
My husband and I were well on our way into this parenting thing in the summer of 2018 when I got the phone call that turned our little world upside down. My kids were almost 6, almost 4 and 18 months old at the time. I was driving my kids home from gymnastics class when I got the phone call. I pulled over to answer, turned the radio on and stepped out of the car. The sweet nurse asked me if she should call back at a better time and that’s when I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. Some people have stories of calmly receiving this news but that wasn’t me. At all. I asked if I was going to die and then listened to instructions on when I was meeting with a surgeon and a plastic surgeon. I called my husband and somehow drove all my kids home. I gave them loads of candy and told them to play upstairs while I lost it on the kitchen floor.
The next few days were full of appointments and figuring out what we wanted to do. I was “lucky” in that I was originally diagnosed with DCIS, which is technically a stage 0 cancer. I opted to do a double mastectomy since the area was so large and I wanted it out of my body forever and ever. We decided that since the possibility of me needing chemo or radiation or anything else was so small that we wouldn’t share too many details with the kids yet.
From the beginning, my worry was always, always that I wouldn’t be able to see my kids grow up. I thought every single sad thought you could think. I thought I would miss them all learn to read. Gosh that is pure magic, isn’t it? Listening to little voices suddenly learn to read a book is magical. I thought I would miss first days of school and last days of school and long, sweaty summer days running around with friends and I thought I’d miss the terribleness of middle school and the beginning of high school and graduation and learning to drive and that I wouldn’t be there to help if someone’s heart was broken by a stupid boy named Gavin. I thought I’d miss weddings and grandbabies and everything in between all of those things. I was never scared of the surgeries or the needles or the medicines or anything like that, my main concern was always that I wouldn’t be there for my kids.
We went into my double mastectomy so optimistic that we would be able to put all of this behind us and move on. The kids all knew that mom was having a surgery and got to spend the week up at their grandpas. My littlest babe, Sophie was hanging out with both sets of grandparents near us. We headed into the hospital for surgery and I just asked my surgeon to please make sure that this wasn’t like some bad Lifetime movie where they went in and my cancer was everywhere. Well…I guess mothers know best? I went from stage 0 to stage 3 while unconscious in an operating room. I woke up and very uncharacteristically Ashley, was calm and cool and collected. I knew we needed to trust the doctors and I knew they would tell me what to do. My (amazing) surgeon laid out the plan several times and made phone calls and who knows what else but he got shit done. We had a PET scan and meetings with oncology and genetic testing and a port placement and chemo and radiation and lots and lots to get through. And I suddenly thought about how on earth will I protect my kids from this? I knew I didn’t want to have sad kids. I needed to keep life normal for them. Whatever we had to do we needed to keep things normal for them. But I knew I needed to protect them from cancer. So we just did it. We did it all.
I kept working throughout all of this because then they wouldn’t feel scared. We told them everything that was going to happen. We told them that mommy’s surgeon took the cancer out of mom’s boob and that she would need a chemo medicine to make sure her cancer didn’t come back. We told them I would lose my hair and we told them about radiation. They colored in waiting rooms and sat in doctors’ offices. They wore hair nets and socks from the hospital they got. We let my oldest daughter help shave my head and pick out a wig. They came with to appointments. Sophie, my youngest, grew up knowing that the plastic surgeon’s office saves suckers for her behind the desk. My middle, Charlie, thinks the oncologist is the happiest place ever because they give him special snacks. And my oldest, Georgia, thinks strep throat is FAR worse than cancer because mom’s cancer “wasn’t really that bad”. They all agree that when mom had cancer they got to eat much better food brought over by our village of helpers. They lived cancer just as much as us, and it was just a normal part of their life. Because we made it normal for them.
So, we did the damn thing. We did it. We kept life normal for our kids. Cancer was just a part of it all. It was just part of our parenting story. And honestly, I don’t think I’d change it. They know doctors are amazing human beings who love and take care of their mom and will do it for them if they need it. They know they have so many people who love them and are part of their team of helpers in this world. They know they can be strong if they need to be. They know that sometimes bad stuff happens. And mostly, they know they can handle life. No matter what it throws at them.
I learned that my job was never ever to protect them from all of it. It wasn’t. My job was to simply live it all with them as a part of it. I learned a lot from them too. I learned that I don’t know if I’ll get to see them grow up. I hope I do, but nothing is a guarantee. And that’s okay. Because I have them right now. And I definitely love it all. Every tantrum. Every sickness. Every giggle. And every single hug.
One of my favorite quotes that got me through all of this is from the amazing Glennon Doyle. It goes like this.
“It is not our job to protect our people from pain. In fact, it is our job to point our people directly toward their pain and say “I see your pain and it’s big. But I see your courage and it’s bigger. Your story is inside your pain. No story, no glory. So walk through that fire and learn that you don’t need to avoid life’s fires—because you are fireproof.”
I guess I never needed to protect my kids or myself from cancer but needed to help us all become fireproof.
Ashley Saaranen @ashsaar on Instagram