Parenting through breast cancer
In November 2019, at 32 years old, I found the lump.
After getting a mammogram, the radiologist noticed some oddly shaped calcifications that were likely malignant. Even before she told me, I could see it in her eyes.
When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, everything happens fast. I was diagnosed with DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ, but further tests and surgery revealed that the cancer had become invasive. It was HER2-positive — a cancer that can be aggressive. After seeing this, my oncologist recommended 12 weeks of traditional chemotherapy, with the targeted therapy trastuzumab (Herceptin).
When I was diagnosed, my son was just shy of 3. He was blissfully unaware of the news I’d received. Meanwhile, I was trying to be present and available, but was distracted and consumed by this diagnosis. Motherhood has many joyous moments and many challenges, but there is no real way to prepare yourself for a cancer diagnosis when you’re a mom. What would it be like to recover from an intensive surgery, a reconstructive surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy, and continue to parent?
The distractions and routines of my son’s daily life helped keep me going as though everything was fine, but I couldn’t avoid the gnawing in the pit of my stomach. What if this disease kills me? Will I see him grow up? How will I still function well as a mom while coping with this new information and going through this treatment?
My mom had been treated for breast cancer 25 years earlier, when I was only 9. My mom is strong, thoughtful, and empathetic. I often wondered how she did it, a cancer diagnosis at 45 with three young children. I asked her, “How do I do this?” I was scared, distracted while parenting and sometimes crippled by my anxiety. She told me you just do, you do it for him. She told me she would help me through it.
She was right. I was scared and uncomfortable, but I learned to show up anyway. Because I had to.
My husband showed up too. He parented, reminded me to rest when I needed to, listened to me express my guilt and took on all the tasks I was unable to do. He wiped our tears, made us laugh, and he did this while processing his own feelings about his wife being diagnosed with cancer. He reminded me often that we would get through this together.
In the first months of treatment, I was in emotional distress as well as physical pain and discomfort, which didn’t always allow me to be as in tune with my son as I normally would be. For the 3 days after chemotherapy each week, I was wiped out and felt foggy. That led to miscommunication and exhaustion, which I then turned into more guilt. For 12 weeks, this pattern continued. I would do anything I could to be present for him, anything to provide him the normalcy he deserved. I strived to be the best version of myself for my son, too. I had the opportunity to cold cap — I wanted to keep my hair for my son, for some consistency … for me — and I was lucky that it was a success. On the hard days, I began to doubt myself. I often felt what I was giving wasn’t enough.
But then I realized something. My son was watching me fight a deadly disease. But he was also watching me play and run with him when I could, even after major surgery. He was encouraging me to keep going. He was watching me face the anxiety of the unknown. He was watching me cry, making me laugh, and giving me the hugs that reminded me that life does go on after cancer.
I’d been so caught up worrying about how this would impact him negatively, I’d forgotten that he might bring out the best in me. He reminded me I could fight and would continue to fight as his mom. He reminded me that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to take time for yourself.
Gradually, the image of my best self changed. I am a very different woman and mom now. I am present, I notice little moments, and I feel more connected to those around me.
As young moms, we worry that a disease like this will alter our entire lives. I learned how it could also strengthen our families and our relationships with our kids. Some days called for rest and some days were filled with discomfort and frustration, but most days were filled with happiness, comfort, and joy — the kind only a child can provide.
To the moms who are right here with me, I see you. We are great moms, even on the hard days.
And our kids are better off with us because of it.
Stephanie Reed is 34 years old and lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, with her husband, their 4-year-old son, and her golden retriever puppy. Stephanie was diagnosed with stage I HER2-positive breast cancer in November 2019. When she isn't playing with her son or walking her dog, you can find her listening to the newest true crime podcast.