On Being a Mom with Cancer


Today’s guest post is written by Jennifer Campisano, a first-time mom who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 32, when her son was just five months old. She writes about navigating the intersection of motherhood and cancer-land at www.boobyandthebeast.com. More than two years after her diagnosis, she is still in active treatment, but also actively enjoying watching her son become a little boy. She hopes she will be lucky enough to see him become a man.

When I think about my experience with cancer as a young mother, I always go back to a conversation I had early on in my journey with a friend who’d been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just twelve weeks pregnant. She’d had a lumpectomy and chemo during her second trimester of pregnancy, gave birth to a healthy baby girl just days after my son Quinn was born, then began another twelve weeks of chemo three weeks postpartum. I was diagnosed nearly a year after she was, so she’d been through everything I was about to start. At one point, we were having a conversation about how much our worlds had flipped upside down. My wise friend pointed out that having a baby and going through cancer are two of the most life-changing events a person can experience, and we went through them at the same time, so it’s tough to tell which changes were caused by parenthood and which were a result of cancer — and that it doesn’t really matter.

My son was five months old when I found out I had Stage 4 breast cancer. He still wasn’t sleeping entirely through the night. I’d get up sometime between one and four a.m. to nurse him back to sleep. He’d only ever had breast milk up to that point; we were just starting to introduce solids like oatmeal and rice cereal. For awhile, I thought I could manage that once-a-night pattern forever. It wasn’t so bad, I thought.

Then came breast cancer. And in the wake of it, people asked me whether I’d felt particularly tired or unwell in the months leading up to my diagnosis. Didn’t all new moms feel tired and unwell? Wasn’t the joke that you might go a few days without showering or leave the house with vomit on your blouse–that you’d expect to be perpetually disheveled because that’s just how new moms are?

I didn’t know if I was any more tired than other moms. I’d never done motherhood or cancer before.

I began chemo two weeks after learning the lump in my breast wasn’t mastitis (a common nursing infection, and what two separate doctors told me it probably was and not to worry about it) but instead cancer. When my breast surgeon told me, “We’ll get you through this,” I told her there was no other choice. “I have a son to raise,” I explained.

Going through chemo with an infant wasn’t easy, but nearly three years later, I can say definitively that going through chemo with a toddler is in many ways more difficult. Nowadays, my son expects me to keep up with him, and the truth is, some days I just cannot.

It breaks my heart that I have already lost so much time to cancer–time spent feeling lousy, time at doctors’ appointments, not to mention time down the road when I may no longer be here. On chemo weeks, when I am especially impatient and irritable, I try to remind myself that all parents have bad days. It is little comfort, because not all parents have a clock ticking over them like a bomb about to go off.

On the other hand, would I appreciate what’s in front of me quite this much–take note of the way his hair parts after I shampoo it, count every freckle, relish in each adorable mispronunciation as his vocabulary explodes–if I wasn’t also facing cancer?

After he’s asleep at night, I sometimes lie down next to my son, breathing in his toddler smells and holding his chubby hand in mine, willing him to know how very much he is loved. I do my best to show him when he’s awake, too, but he is a toddler and most days he is more interested in his trains or digging in the dirt in our backyard than indulging his mama in one more kiss.

I often feel guilty about this life we have–with my uncertain health, my near-constant doctors appointments or lab visits or scans–this life in which my son has the mom with cancer. Others remind me that he doesn’t know any different. Also, it’s not as if I chose this.

I feel guilty, too, about what I can’t give my son. When his best little friend Sydney had a baby sister a few months ago, Quinn began asking for a baby of his own. I am immensely lucky that I had my boy before this diagnosis, one that takes so many women’s fertility. I don’t know whether I could get pregnant again, but the risk of me stopping the chemo I’m on to foster a healthy pregnancy is far too great to take the chance.

The last time Quinn asked for a baby, I suggested a puppy instead. He responded with glee, “I want a baby and a puppy!” As one friend put it, “I can only answer with no–such a tiny word that hides a world of heartache for me.”

In addition to the guilt, I worry about how I will explain my prognosis to him as he gets old enough to understand. (How that phrase rolls off the tongue! As if any of us understands cancer.) For now, we take it one day at a time, which I suppose is the best approach with any cancer diagnosis. Other moms have advised age-appropriate honesty. We will cross that bridge again and again, most likely, as his questions evolve and my disease remains a fixture in our lives. I hope with every fiber in my being that by the time Quinn is old enough to start questioning my prognosis, they will be that much closer to a cure.

This little boy is the love of my life. As I tell him almost daily, he is my favorite person on the planet. And as tough as facing cancer is as a mom, I wouldn’t want to face it without him. Of course, I don’t know anything different.