I can’t be a cancer patient. I am a mother!
24th Mar 2022
Emily was diagnosed with blood cancer when her daughter was just 18 months old. Here, she reflects on the emotional impact of facing cancer as a mother. Eight years on, Emily is 'officially cured' and is enjoying precious time with her daughter.
‘You don’t understand. I am a mother. I have a baby. I can’t be ill. She needs me’. I looked at the doctor incredulously as I sat in the very warm consulting room.
‘But you don’t understand. I am a mother. I have a baby. I can’t be ill. She needs me’. I repeated that sentence with a sense of rising panic as he did not seem to be listening. Then, he told me that I had a form of acute leukaemia.
Words were flung into the air - ‘bone marrow’, ‘chemotherapy’ and ‘hospital stay.’ All I could think was, can’t he see that I need to be with my little girl?
I was suddenly part of a world which I did not understand.
I took a deep breath and tried again, speaking slowly, and enunciating each word with care. I hoped that he would say he’d made a mistake, apologise, and send me home to resume my normal life (spoiler: that did not happen). I can’t be a cancer patient. I am a mother!
When I received my diagnosis, my whole world turned upside down. Life as I knew it was snatched away, taking my innocence and trust with it. I was suddenly part of a world which I did not understand.
Cuddles, bedtimes and nappies had been replaced with PICC lines, chemo and biopsies.
Nothing made sense anymore…
Without treatment, I would have about three weeks left to live
I was told that I had acute myeloid leukaemia, and that without treatment, I had about three weeks left to live. I got my diagnosis on a Thursday and on the following Monday morning, I was in a hospital room, where I embarked on the most gruelling six months of my life.
I felt as if my life was within four walls, with an endless cycle of chemo and a stream of doctors and nurses.
Cancer was a devastating enough diagnosis, but as a mother, I somehow felt like it was my child’s diagnosis too. I felt like I had failed as a mother because, at only 18 months old, my daughter Phoebe had to learn that instead of me being the one person she could rely on, I was leaving her.
Living without each other
I cried myself to sleep most nights as I grappled with the pain and fear of having treatment.
Mostly, I cried because I was living without her, and worse, she was living without me.
I became a shadow of my former self – I lost my hair, and felt weak and broken. What got me through the long days and even longer nights was the fact that although leaving Phoebe for six months was bad enough, the thought of leaving her forever was unimaginable.
I felt so ill that even her scarce visits were difficult. I felt that I was letting her down each time I saw her. She was too young to understand what was fully going on, but she knew enough to wonder where I was and why her world was not as it should be.
All I could do was hope that one day I could make it home and make up for all the lost time.
Somehow, I got through it. The day I was told I was officially in remission was one of the happiest days of my life. I felt as if I was giving her life back too.
Then came the endless cycle of blood tests, follow up appointments and anxiety. It was not a case of asking myself, ‘would it come back?’ but rather, ‘when would it come back?’
Gradually, I started to breathe again. With each good blood test result, my muscles unclenched a little, my laugh was more genuine and my nightmares less vivid. I started to live again. Days became weeks, weeks became months and months became years. The haunted look in Phoebe’s eyes left and she was sure of me once more.
I wake up smiling that I am here for all the firsts (and seconds and thirds) in her life.
Suddenly, she was five years old and starting school. I was at her first nativity play and I watched her learn to read. Then, she was six and writing her name. Then, she was seven and swimming in the sea and making jokes with her friends - happy and carefree. Now, she is eight and a half and her own person.
I wake up smiling that I am here for all the firsts (and seconds and thirds) in her life. The black cloud hanging over me has all but disappeared and I feel the sunshine more these days.
We have had days out, family holidays and more cuddles than I can count.
Five years after my diagnosis, my amazing consultant declared me ‘officially cured,’ prompting tears of joy. These tears are so very different from the tears of hopelessness and despair at the start of my journey.
I even took part in last year’s Jog 26.2 miles for Blood Cancer UK, which is pretty good for someone who once struggled to get out of bed. It’s been seven years since my diagnosis, and I can finally say the word ‘cancer’ without too much of a shudder.
Being a mother is an amazing and difficult job. Being a mother with cancer is something else altogether. One thing I have learned is that I was not ‘failing’ my child, I was fighting for her future as well as my own. It may not always feel like it, but every needle, every chemo, every feeling of despair as a cancer patient is being a good mother and a sign of strength. All we can teach our children is kindness, endurance and most of all, love.
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