What I Learned as a Mom of a Cancer Survivor

This blog post has nothing to do with career or personal development. Or maybe it has everything to do with it. I’ll let you be the judge. Either way, it is a post about personal growth and perspective.

I am writing this post because as a mom, today feels like a day that needs to be commemorated. But first, let me start with some background. Most of you know I have identical twin boys. Some of you also know (either through my work with the Stollery Children’s Hospital, or from reading a brief blog post I wrote on this topic) that one of my boys was born with cancer (neuroblastoma of the adrenal gland to be specific).

My son at 2 years following his last major surgery to remove the neuroblastoma.

My son at 2 years following his last major surgery to remove the neuroblastoma.

I didn’t even know babies could be born with cancer. Having a high-risk pregnancy I was going for weekly ultrasounds. We were lucky to have caught the tumour on the 28-week ultrasound, before my son was even born. I was in denial for a while, as it’s something that I never would have imagined could happen to us. It took us a couple of years before we could even say the “c word” out loud in the privacy of our own home. Even writing “cancer survivor” in the title of this post felt surreal. In part, this is because the treatment options for our son were more ideal than a typical neuroblastoma case, since we caught it so early. I’ve experienced what I can only describe as survivor’s guilt by proxy as a result.

The bravest little guy I know, post op #1

The bravest little guy I know, post op #1

Dad cheering up our survivor following his first surgery.

Dad cheering up our survivor following his first surgery.

Over the past five years, our son has been followed very closely and has had three surgeries, one of which was related to being premature. He was born weighing a little over 3 lbs., so he has had other challenges related to that, one requiring surgery at 3 months of age. He then had surgery to remove the cancer at 2 years old. We celebrated prematurely (which to this day causes anxiety at check-ups) and three months later found out that his cancer was not fully removed. He then underwent a kidney-threatening surgery to remove the remaining cancer.

Reunited with his twin brother after his 1st major surgery.

Reunited with his twin brother after his 1st major surgery.

That was three years ago. I am elated and relieved that today we received news that his scans were all clear. He still has both kidneys and one of two adrenal glands, which has had no affect on his health. Not only has he officially graduated to survivor status, he won’t require any more scans under general anaesthetic or that require injections that threaten his thyroid function. To be honest, some of his hardest days were when he was undergoing the countless scans. One or more of the following: ultrasounds, CTs, MRIs, MIBGs were performed every few weeks, then tapering off eventually to bi-annually, so putting this part behind us is a huge milestone.

Photo by Ken Treloar

Photo by Ken Treloar

Today was just another normal day for my son. We went to his check-up where we received the good news, his Dad brought him a sprinkle donut from Tim’s, and he’s now playing with his twin brother.

But for my husband and I, we are able to breathe a huge sigh of relief (mixed with some anxiety, as we won’t have the scans as ongoing “proof”).

What I Learned Through Our 5-Year Journey

So, what did this experience teach me? I summarized my main take-aways for you below.  

1.  We can’t control everything. Control has been a common theme in my life. I’m averse to being subjected to control and in turn want to have the most control over the outcomes in my life. I’ve finally learned to allow space to let life happen, instead of trying to constantly make it happen. I have more awareness that when I feel like I need to be “doing something” that I am likely elevating my stress level needlessly. Working on inner peace can be more helpful than spending endless hours consulting with Dr. Google, for example. Also, faith is always a choice. I am not religious, so learning this wasn’t obvious nor easy for me. But in every moment, we can choose to have faith that the outcome will be in our favour. And when it comes to the factors that are actually in our control, if we focus on the positive, it will shift our mindset to being more resourceful and solution-oriented.

Photo by Chris Liu

Photo by Chris Liu

2.  Having something to fight for gives us purpose. It’s amazing how you can step up to challenges you thought you’d never be equipped to deal with. Being able to rise to a challenge helps you see what you’re made of. And when you walk away from the fight, you feel an obligation to fight for those left behind who need it most. In today’s world we hear a lot of people complaining. Complaints that are political in nature, things that are not going their way, or simply hurt feelings. It’s important to shed light on issues and pay attention to what our feelings are telling us. But, if you’re spending excess emotional energy on a particular issue ask yourself, “What am I fighting for? Am I making a real impact?” Movements or social trends can be examples of what are actually just symptoms of underlying problems.

Pay attention to your triggers, they are often leading you to your purpose.

How are you actually going to inspire change? Get to the root of the issue? And if it’s not worth the fight, don’t waste precious energy that could be directed toward a more fulfilling purpose.

Photo by Zhen Hu

Photo by Zhen Hu

3.  Anxiety is a sneaky mo-fo. Excuse my implied profanity, but it’s true! I’ve done a lot of personal work and gained a new level of awareness around my own anxiety over the years, but every time my little guy had a big scan, my face would break out, my mood would fluctuate, my sleep quality would diminish, and even when I thought I was mentally ok, the environmental triggers would set me off. I wouldn’t even realize what was happening until I was reminded of the anniversary of his first major post-op scan (the day we didn’t hear what we had expected). Time heals wounds for sure, but as a highly evolved species, it takes time to re-wire our brain to serve us in this modern world; our threats are not as real as we make them out to seem.

Photo by  Verne Ho

Photo by Verne Ho

Conclusion

I hope in reading this I was able to provide some perspective for you as a reader. And my ask of you for sharing this is that you take even the smallest of actions today to let go of what isn’t serving you and move toward your purpose. Like I often say to my clients:

It’s simple, not easy, but so worth it.  

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