Menu

My cancer diagnosis taught me I can’t protect my child from her feelings

Pretending everything was okay wasn’t working for us. 

My cancer diagnosis taught me I can’t protect my child from her feelings

My husband Cameron, daughter Lily, and I celebrated my 12-year cancer-free anniversary in February. We annually throw a huge party we lovingly dubbed Lung Leavin’ Day, and invite all our friends and family. Since the first anniversary of my surgery in 2006 that removed my left lung to eliminate the cancer, the party has grown from a few people to almost 100.


I was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos exposure, when I was just 36 (very rare for this cancer), and my baby girl was only 3.5 months old. I never had a chance to simply be a mom and enjoy that new baby smell because after I started noticing symptoms I received a quick diagnosis and was swept up in a flurry of doctor’s appointments, surgical procedures, scans and fear.

FEATURED VIDEO

No one can prepare you for a cancer diagnosis, let alone a cancer diagnosis as a new mom. All of a sudden I had my own health problems to deal with, along with trying to figure out how to be a mother to a newborn baby.

Our world was turned upside down. I had a rare cancer with about a 2% chance of survival past five years at the time of my diagnosis. This presented us with a whole different set of issues that we never dreamed of, namely the very real possibility of my husband raising our daughter alone.

We were faced with some tough decisions to make, the first option being to travel 1,400 miles away from our home where the best doctor was located who could perform a risky surgery that could save my life. But, our daughter couldn’t come with us.

We made the choice to travel for the surgery, because we both felt that this was the best chance I had to be around to raise my baby. Thankfully my parents stepped in and Lily traveled 600 miles across the state to go live with them while my husband and I got on a plane in Minneapolis to fly to Boston.

We missed Lily’s entire sixth month of life, while I fought for mine, watching her grow through grainy photos emailed by my mom and dad.

I’m happy to say that the risk was worth it. The surgery worked and the debilitating treatments did what they were supposed to. As of now, 12 years later, I have no evidence of disease.

This does not mean, however, that I am free from the effects of the surgery and treatments. Life as a cancer survivor is not all about “living life to the fullest.” I still have regular scans to stay on top of things, and still must travel 1,400 miles every six months to see Dr. Sugarbaker at Baylor University.

Lily was so young for much of my treatments and thankfully does not remember any of it. She doesn’t remember being raised by her grandparents for three months while I recovered from surgery. She doesn’t remember me laying on the couch after chemo, too tired to get up or play with her so I would close the doors to the living room and get all the toys out in hopes she would entertain herself. She doesn’t remember standing over me while I retched into the toilet every day during radiation, and her rubbing my back asking ‘Mama okay? Mama okay??”

But what she does remember is that I would leave every few months to fly to see my doctor. When she was young we would try to coordinate the trips with overnight stays with her favorite aunt, so it was something fun, not worrisome. We tried our best to not let it disrupt her world.

As Lily got older and started understanding things, my husband and I made sure to open the lines of conversation in a candid and honest way, so she would feel safe talking to us about the cancer. We never hide anything from her, and have included her in all our decisions. This works best for us.

I have many days when I simply don’t feel great as a result of radiation and chemo; even all these years later, the treatments still affect me. I’ve had hospital stays due to pneumonia and heart issues, all a result of living life with one lung. We communicate with her through these times so she understands.

We just assumed she was okay with things until she was around six. It was the day before I was supposed to leave for my scans, and she started complaining that her tummy hurt. I went through all the things a mom goes through when your child complains about a tummy ache, finally getting down on the floor to feel her forehead to see if she was feverish.

I’ll never forget the look on her face as she looked up at my with her big brown eyes and asked me; “What if your scans don’t come back clear?” My heart broke into a million pieces.

I gathered her up in my arms and did everything I could to reassure her that the reason I travelled so far to see my doctor was to make sure I was taken care of. I realized that we had just taken for granted that she seemed okay with things without ever really talking with her about it. That day it really clicked for me—kids are far more intuitive than we give them credit for, and they understand things better than we think.

From that point on, we started asking questions and we changed our overall approach. We made sure our whole family was on the same page—including aunts, uncles, and grandparents—so when she talked about it to them, they could answer with confidence. (Also, communicating with family members and friends about how you approach cancer conversations helps them cope as well.)

We enrolled her teachers and counselors at school in what was going on, so if she all of the sudden came to the nurse’s office not feeling well near the time I was gone getting scans, they could understand why she may feel that way. Days I don’t feel well turn into cuddle days, making sure she understood why I had to lay low that day.

Over time I’ve become a bit of a bragging piece for Lily. She tells people I have one lung and that I have survived cancer for 12 years. Mostly, she tells people she saved my life—which she did—because if not for her, I maybe would not have fought as hard to be here.

As parents, we want to protect our kids and one of the ways we tend to do that is by pretending things are perfect and fine, but sometimes, that isn’t realistic. My husband and I have found that open, honest discussion has been far better for us than trying to hide things from our daughter. She has a much wider world view and empathy for others, both of which make me so proud.

As a parent, you will know what is right for you and your child given the specific obstacle you have to overcome. In my case it was cancer. Your case might be tackling a divorce or a cross-country move or the loss of a grandparent. What works for one, may not work for the other, as each child processes things differently. It’s not a bad idea to enroll the help of a counselor if needed and utilize resources available.

Being a parent is tough in its own right, but throwing the upheaval of cancer (or another extremely difficult and delicate situation) in the mix makes it a territory few people talk about. By coming together, supporting one another and talking about the hard stuff, this can change.

You might also like:

14 outdoor toys your kids will want to play with beyond summer

They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

With Labor day weekend in the rearview and back-to-school in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in summer-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

Meadow ring toss game

Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.

$30

Balance board

Plan Toys balance board

Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!

$75

Detective set

Plan Toys detective setDetective Set

This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.

$40

Wooden doll stroller

Janod wooden doll strollerWooden Doll Stroller

Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.

$120

Sand play set

Plan Toys sand set

Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.

$30

Water play set

Plan Toys water play set

Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.

$100

Mini golf set

Plan Toys mini golf set

Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.

$40

Vintage scooter balance bike

Janod retro scooter balance bike

Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.

$121

Wooden rocking pegasus

plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.

$100

Croquet set

Plan Toys croquet set

The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.

$45

Wooden digital camera

fathers factory wooden digital camera

Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.

$179

Wooden bulldozer toy

plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.

$100

Pull-along hippo

janod toys pull along hippo toy

There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.

$33

Baby forest fox ride-on

janod toys baby fox ride on

Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.

$88

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

Shop

There is rightfully a lot of emphasis on preparing for the arrival of a new baby. The clothes! The nursery furniture! The gear! But, the thing about a baby registry is, well, your kids will keep on growing. Before you know it, they'll have new needs—and you'll probably have to foot the bill for the products yourself.

Thankfully, you don't have to break the bank when shopping for toddler products. Here are our favorite high-quality, budget-friendly finds to help with everything from meal time to bath time for the toddler set.

Comforts Fruit Crisps Variety Pack

Comforts fruit snacks

If there is one thing to know about toddlers, it is this: They love snacks. Keeping a variety on hand is easy when the pack already comes that way! Plus, we sure do appreciate that freeze-dried fruit is a healthier alternative to fruit snacks.

Comforts Electrolyte Drink

Comforts electrolyte drink

Between running (or toddling!) around all day and potentially developing a pickier palate, many toddlers can use a bit of extra help with replenishing their electrolytes—especially after they've experienced a tummy bug. We suggest keeping an electrolyte drink on hand.

Comforts Training Pants

Comforts training pants

When the time comes to start potty training, it sure helps to have some training pants on hand. If they didn't make it to the potty in time, these can help them learn their body's cues.

Comforts Nite Pants

comforts nite pants

Even when your toddler gets the hang of using the toilet during the day, nighttime training typically takes several months longer than day-time training. In the meantime, nite pants will still help them feel like the growing, big kid they are.

Comforts Baby Lotion

comforts baby lotion

Running, jumping, playing in sand, splashing in water—the daily life of a toddler can definitely irritate their skin! Help put a protective barrier between their delicate skin and the things they come into contact with every day with nourishing lotion.

Another great tip? Shopping the Comforts line on Comfortsforbaby.com to find premium baby products for a fraction of competitors' prices—and follow along on social media to see product releases and news at @comfortsforbaby.

This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

Our Partners

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that newborns, especially, do not need a bath every day. While parents should make sure the diaper region of a baby is clean, until a baby learns how to crawl around and truly get messy, a daily bath is unnecessary.

So, why do we feel like kids should bathe every day?

Keep reading Show less
Learn + Play