July 05, 2009

Lost and Found: Mom with Cancer Learns to Let Go


I don’t have kids but got to peer in the lives of parents with cancer when I was doing interviews for my book Everything Changes. I believe that cancer is a totally different disease for people who are parents and think there should be a new staging system to reflect this monumental difference: Cancer Stages I – IV NK (no kids) and Stages I – IV P (parent).

Jen Singer is the creator of MommaSaid.net, the moderator of the Parenting with Cancer boards at Planet Cancer, and the author of four parenting books including Stop Second Guessing Yourself—The Toddler Years (HCI 2009).  I asked her to write a guest post about life during treatment as a mom of three.  Take it away Jen:

“When I found my son’s swim goggles in our mailbox, I took it as a sign that I was no longer in charge. How could I be? That summer, I was undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 non Hodgkin’s lymphoma (and, oh yeah, my house was undergoing renovations…). So I didn’t have the energy to drive my kids to swim team practice. In fact, I missed most of their swim meets and much of June, which I spent in the hospital, sharing a room with an 84 year-old leukemia patient, who was dying. I missed being the kind of hands-on mom I’d always been. But most of all, I missed my kids.

I learned a lot of things that summer, like how to tie a headscarf and what time The Daily Show repeats come on during the day. But most of all, I learned how to let go. It was the best thing for me, and for my kids.

While some nice folks took it upon themselves to turn my mailbox into a Lost and Found, my neighbor, Susan, organized the community to cook for us three times a week. Another neighbor, Kim, set up a schedule for friends to carpool my kids to various activities and playdates, which she arranged for me. My job was simply to sit on the couch and wave good-bye – if I was even awake. Everything else was pretty much handled by everyone but me.

The sicker I felt, the easier it was to let friends and family take care of my kids. I’d much rather that my children spend the afternoon swimming with their buddies than watching me doze off or witnessing me drop to the floor in excruciating pain, a side effect of the white blood cell-boosting shots I received after each chemo session.

But when school started in the fall, not being in charge was harder for us all to take. I had to ask my husband to fill out the first-day paperwork, because I was simply too exhausted. I brought my mother and a teen from down the street to help me coach a soccer game, because the radiation treatments had weakened my voice. And when I went to Back-to-School night, several neighbors didn’t even recognize me and my puffy-from-steroids, eyelash-less face.

For the first school year ever, I wasn’t Jen Singer, class mom. I was Jen Singer, cancer patient. And that was hard on all of us, especially my kids.

But once my treatments ended and my energy (and my hair) began a glorious return, I started to pick up where I’d left off. By the time I found out I was in remission (and still am), I was slowly becoming the hands-on mom I used to be.

Now two years later, I am in charge of the kids – and the swim goggles – again. But I’ll never forget the generosity our neighbors extended to me the summer that I had cancer. I may have lost the ability to parent the way I wanted to, but I found something so much more important in the mailbox and beyond.”

When you were parenting with cancer, what was it like to let go of control of the day to day life of raising your kids?  If you are post-treatment, or in remission, do you feel like having had cancer has changed the way you parent?

For more stories, advice, and resources on parenting with cancer, check out my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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May 22, 2009

It’s All In Your Head


Psychosomatic.  There I said the word.  Did you cringe?  I would think most young adult cancer survivors might.  Many of us had delayed diagnoses because our doctors thought we were hypochondriacs, too young for cancer, and it was all in our heads.

Take for example Mary Ann Harvard, who is the fantastic It Girl in my book.  Her docs told her that her fatigue and difficulties breathing were all in her head.  They even gave her a referral to a psychiatrist.  I bet they felt like big assholes when it was finally discovered that she had a tumor in her chest the size of a football.

But, over the past few years I have begun to explore the notion that some of  my fatigue and aches and pains are sometimes caused by stress and worry.  This seems like a Pandora’s box to open as an advocate who fights hard for our medical needs to be taken seriously, but here I go.

I don’t think that my fatigue and pains are always in my head.  But I do think that stress hormones can do a number on my body.  I have begun to notice my stress level and a correlation between how I feel physically.  At first I wanted to deny the connection because I felt it discounted my experience as a cancer survivor.  But it actually helps to notice when my stress is impacting my health and modify my behavior.  I don’t chalk up all of my pains and fatigue to stress, but I am training myself to recognize the difference between stress and a separate physiological illness response.

Does the word hypochondria make you cringe?  Were you ever accused of being a hypochondriac prior to your diagnosis when your symptoms were arising?  Do you ever notice a link between how your feel mentally and how you feel physically?  What do you do about it?

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February 19, 2009

Grocery Shopping and Cancer

Shopping List
Are you seeing double from treatment, immobile from surgery, or too fatigued to drive to the store for groceries but tired of asking your friends for favors? Learn how to make your food last longer so that you can make fewer trips to the grocery store. M. O’Connor, a commenter on a New York Times foodie blog offers the following tips, which I have adapted slightly.

1. Buy meat in quantity and pop into the freezer upon unpacking

2. Lettuce: Buy heads not bags, store with bottom end in a bit of water

3. Keep bags of frozen vegetables on hand (healthier than canned)

4. Rice, most dried beans, and pastas keep for ages on the shelf

5. Dried fruits have long shelf-lives, as do most nuts

6. Potatoes, onions, and apples last a while, store in a cool, dry place

7. Wrap hard cheeses in waxed paper followed by aluminum foil

8. Eggs last far longer than the date on the box,purchase many cartons
are a time. Read more about it.

9. Use canned or powdered milk for baking; eat oatmeal for breakfast

10. Keep butter and bread in the freezer, defrosting as needed

This list contains some pitfalls for young adult cancer patients: you have to be able to afford to buy in quantity, have a large enough freezer, and if you are trying to eat organic or preservative free, your food will perish much faster than conventional food.

Have you needed others to do your groceries while you were sick? What made it go smoothly or not? What is the nastiest thing someone bought you when they did your shopping? (Mine was cozy shack pudding, which I ended up liking!) Have you ever gone without food because you couldn’t make it to the store?

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