Women's health

I have two toddlers… and stage four breast cancer

You know you’re a mother when you’re still trying to micromanage a childhood you might not be around for. 

“You know,” I said to my husband this summer as we sat on a friend’s dock,  stealing some much-needed time away together. “If I don’t make it—”

“Hold on,” he tried to interrupt. 

“No, Mark, please, just let me say this. If I end up not making it, and you eventually move on—which I’m OK with—just please make sure there are no red flags with her when it comes to the kids.” 

“Crysta—”

“Like if you fall in love, but she doesn’t warm up to Mavi and Eli, promise me you’ll run for the hills. The kids need someone who will love them like a mother.”

Mark sighed. “We’re a long way off from these kinds of talks. We have to have hope.”

“I know,” I replied steadily. “And I do have hope, but I also think about these things, and I need to know they’ve been said.”

You know you’re a mother when you’re still trying to micromanage an existence—two childhoods—you might not be around for. Never did I think I would be having these conversations, matter-of-factly, let alone navigating cancer with toddlers underfoot while the uncertainty of my future looms overhead. But here we are. Metastatic breast cancer. Mid-pandemic. 

I was still on mat leave and breastfeeding my youngest when I was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 1, 2020. April Fool’s Day. Disbelief turned to horror when I was told that the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes in my chest and is thus metastatic. Although my oncologist reassures me that everyone is different, Google says I’ll have to beat some serious odds to see my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter off to school on her first day of Grade 1. As the reality of my Stage Four diagnosis sets in, much of the grief I experience boils down to the thought of leaving my children behind.

Paradoxically, it’s motherhood that gives me the strength to acknowledge this thought and remain stoic for my kids.

To the naked eye, I probably don’t look like I have cancer. My hair is growing back after chemotherapy, my mastectomy is hidden beneath clothing, and I train (virtually) with a personal trainer three times a week, which I started doing mid-chemo, so I could increase my odds, fend off anxiety, and have more energy to play with my kids.  Add to this my COVID-typical penchant for trendy loungewear, and the fact that I’m often being yanked along by toddling Mavi, or walking hand-in-hand with my chattering three-and-a-half-year-old son, Eli, I look like any slightly disheveled mom trying to tire the kids out before nap

In fact, you really wouldn’t get a cancer “vibe” from our household. Toddlers always manage to take the spotlight and remind us that their problems are bigger than ours. Not wanting to share a toy, or not being allowed to play with a corkscrew, are scream-worthy dilemmas for them, more urgent than my own existential crisis. Turns out toddlers offer an effective kind of therapy; my dismal health problems are constantly eclipsed by their hilarious antics, lust for life, and excitement for Octonauts. Trying to keep up with them and their needs is the ultimate distraction from cancer. 

As wonderful as Toddler Therapy is, it still comes with toddlers. Moreover, our family has to be militant about COVID-19 restrictions. Because cancer and toddlers are both full-time jobs, I’ve had to seriously rely on outside help. Different people, including both grandmas, have moved in for months at a time (after requisite 14-day self-isolation periods). Logistically, we’re a team. We plan heavily around hard-hitting treatments. We discuss the kids far more than cancer. We ensure, no matter how much we rotate caregivers throughout the day, that the kids are consistently following the schedule that has been posted in multiple rooms. Like an in-house daycare, Eli and Mavi have breakfast, outdoor time, snacks, nap or quiet time and afternoon play at the same time every day. When I have energy, we go on more interesting (COVID-safe) outings. 

Maintaining predictability in the kids’ routine has been easy; managing who does what is trickier. We try to rotate as consistently as possible. Mark usually wakes up with the kids and does breakfast before work. The remainder of the day, and household upkeep, gets split among the rest of us, depending on who happens to be here supporting us. Currently, both grandmas are living with us temporarily, so the kids change hands a lot. The grandmas are usually in charge of making dinner, and Mark and I always try to do bath and bedtime. 

My own place in the schedule changes depending on my cancer treatment. I’ve undergone chemo, surgery and now radiation in the past five months, each with its unique set of appointments and side effects dictating how and when I can interact with my kids. For example, I was nauseous for the first four days after chemo, and slowly gained energy each day after that. Following my mastectomy, I couldn’t drive or pick up the kids for four weeks. The daily radiation appointments seem easy so far, but I’m told I’ll soon be fatigued. I’ve only been in bed all day a few times during these treatments, but some days I am grey-faced and rundown, fighting nausea while reading a book to the kids. More often, I feel fine, and I load them into the car for simple activities, like going to see a neighbour’s grazing cows. 

mom cares for baby while older kid finger paints on her bald head

Photo: Dagmara Brunst

Career-wise, I was expecting the kids would be in daycare by now as I returned to my job as a CÉGEP teacher. But cancer upended my return to work (and COVID put the cherry on top, because I’m too immune-compromised to risk daycare now). I’m nonetheless struggling with relinquishing control of my household and my place in it. Believe it or not, mom guilt has followed me into the world of cancer, as I wonder if other moms with cancer are doing better or more for their kids. And with these absurd ponderings comes the realization of how parasitic mom guilt is, and what a waste of precious energy.

In reality, by sharing the parenting load and accepting my current limitations, I’ve learned that the more I accept help in general, the more my children benefit. The kids still reach for me first, or fight over me when I enter a room, but now I can see how expansive the community is that supports me and my family. From the healing power of grandmas inside our pod, to those who support us from a safe distance, there have been fundraisers, meals, gifts, Costco runs, and messages of love pouring in—some written in chalk in front of our house. Last week, my colleagues paraded down my street holding signs that read, “We miss you and want you back!”

Where once I could never imagine my children’s world without me, it’s clear to me now, after months of relinquishing control and saying “yes,” how many people are—and have always been—behind us. If it ever comes to it, the void I leave behind will be filled, in some measure, by the same community that has shrouded us with love through these difficult months.

After radiation is done, the grandmas will fly to their respective homes, and then I will live life like so many women with metastatic breast cancer: invisibly cancerous, seeming normal, and in three-month increments between CT scans. If a scan shows progression (and we hope it’s a long time before one does), we try something new. We hope we don’t run out of new things to try.

But there may come a time when I’m told to get my things in order. And here is where I begin the delicate dance of planning for a future I might not be a part of, while not fracturing the hope I still have. 

In these moments, I draw on the wellspring of strength that all mothers have. I have pragmatic conversations with Mark where I nitpick his future partner. I write loving words from Mama to Eli and Mavi in their journals. Last month I wrote a cathartic poem to them about how I’ll find them in the wind and wrap them with its gusts. I exercise, meditate, and blog about my experiences to try to make sense of it all.

I often feel very confident that I’ll be around for a long time, but until I know for sure, I look continually for ways for Mavi and Eli to absorb my love so much, and so deeply, that it stays with them their entire lives.

My friends marvel at how grounded I seem, and they tell me, “I couldn’t do it.” Yes, you could. I hope you never have to, but you would.

Cancer is big, but motherhood is bigger. The strength in motherhood reaches much further than I’d ever imagined, into a world where you’d easily lop off  a boob for more time.

It’s that strength that keeps me focused on sowing seeds of maternal love and tenderness in a future landscape that might blossom for my kids without me.  

A note from the author: 

Metastatic breast cancer (MBC) is advanced cancer that has spread from the breast to one or more distant sites in the body (bones, chest, lungs, liver, etc.) and is thus incurable. It’s a deadly diagnosis, and yet it is sorely underrepresented during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Moreover, only a fraction of cancer funding goes to MBC, even though any gains in research could save many lives. If you’re planning on supporting any breast cancer charities this month, please consider one that funds metastatic breast cancer research. 

Crysta Balis (@libratocancer) writes about her life and treatments at libratocancer.com.