July 05, 2023

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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  1. Greyash Says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 4:06 PM

    Oh, how hard letting go is. My first child was born, a beautiful son, and 5 days later I was diagnosed. While most moms I know didn’t let their kids have a babysitter until they were one or older, I was letting my entire family and strangers from churches in the area take care of him for me so I could rest. We were so lucky he was a happy and easy baby. Perhaps that’s why he is not such an easy toddler - or perhaps it’s just those terrible twos. The hardest part for me still is just doing what I can and letting the rest go. So we cancel a playdate because Mom is exhausted. Is he permanently scarred? No. So we only go swimming for 30 minutes instead of 60. He’s not so pruny. And I don’t get so tired that I spend the rest of the day on the couch. He is lucky to have so much love from those around him. That is what keeps me going and keeps me letting others take care of him.

  2. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 10:30 PM

    I’m sorry that you had such intense hard news, Greyash, on the heels of such joy - the birth of your son. I meet so many young people who talk about how hard it is to ask for help, and so many just refuse to accept it. Through watching parents with cancer, I have learned that this attitude of “I won’t let anyone help me” is a luxury that parents cannot afford. It seems to me that when you are raising a kid when you have cancer you just have to surrender pretty fast and call in for back up. I does not sound easy to me by any means, but quite necessary. I’m glad you had such great help around you. Hope you survive the terrible twos. - Kairol

  3. Michelle Says:
    July 5th, 2009 at 11:14 PM

    My kids were 6 and just-shy-of-2 when I was diagnosed. I have always been a hands-on mom, the main caregiver, and the center of my kid’s lives. Between facing the unknown, surgery, and chemo, I had to literally hand my kids over the friends and family for 8 months. The surgeries made it so my kids couldn’t easily climb into my lap for their hugs, cuddle-time, and story-time. The chemo made me forgetful, exhausted, and unable to parent in any real way. And yet, I had to give up that time with them to get what I have now. I am grateful that I had people (mostly family) to take care of my children - it has given me the ability to take care of them now. If I hadn’t given up those months with them, I wouldn’t have been able to fight to get to where I am now. Giving up my parenting card was the hardest thing I have ever had to do, and I still reel from the effects. I can’t remember things that my kids did over the past year - chalk it up to chemo brain. But, worse, I can’t remember things they did when they were babies - another effect of the chemo. That’s hard, but it’s easier to swallow than having to figure out how to say goodbye to my kids.
    I cherish every moment with my kids now - I do admit that there are times when I have to remind myself where I was this time last year (deep in chemo), in order to really appreciate the moment we are in. I think it’s so easy to get caught up in the everyday details, and to forget about listening to the tinkle of your child’s giggle, feeling the silky-smoothness of their hair, and loving the smell of them. I try to cherish those moments daily. It’s a blessing that cancer gives us - this ability to wallow in the moments that others pass over willingly.

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