Processing Cancer as a Family

It was 10 years ago that I heard those four words that changed my life… “You have cervical cancer.” Little did I know that my children’s lives would forever be affected. As a single mom, I’ve been the only caregiver my children have. So when I was told I had cancer, I wondered, “Now what?” This wasn’t just a cold, this was cancer. Who would care for them?

I choose to remain open with my children. But when I mention to them that I have a routine appointment coming up, they ask a lot of questions:

“Why you have to go to the doctor again?”

“Is it back?”

“I don’t understand, why do you have to go back?”

I often answer vaguely, not putting too much thought into it. But then my youngest, who is more vocal than my oldest, told me she couldn’t sleep thinking about me going to the doctor. This is when I realized just how much my cancer diagnosis affected them. Even to this day my children are terrified when I mention that I have a doctor’s appointment, or any health-related appointment for that matter.

People often ask survivors how cancer has affected our lives, but very rarely consider how cancer has affected our loved ones. Usually, when we finish treatments and move forward with life, a lot of people think that’s it, you’re all better. Many survivors never speak about it again; it becomes almost taboo among friends and family. But it’s important to realize that as much as it affects us as patients, our families have fears and anxieties as well. They need support and compassion too.

Read more about Edna’s Cervivor story here.

My Promise To Jillian

Wow, where do I begin? This has been one of the most difficult years of my life; losing my best friend Jillian Scalfani to cervical cancer.  I will never forget the day she came home from the hospital in Boston and told me she had cancer. This thought had not even crossed any of our minds. She thought at max, the news would be that she would have to have a hysterectomy and would be fine.  Her youngest was 2-years old at the time and she was not planning on more children. This was the start of her three year battle with cervical cancer.

During this difficult time, radiation, chemo and several clinical trials had failed her.  She would often get emotional talking about her children.  She was fighting the fight for them and boy did she.  She knew that her youngest Joseph (Jojo) would be okay because his father Big Joe, Jayden and her all lived together.  He would take good care of Jojo.  Her fear was what about Jayden?  Jayden’s father has never been a part of his life and who was going to take care of him? After a conversation with Big Joe while Jill was getting a Chemo treatment, I realized he had no intentions of raising Jayden.  He thought it would be too much having to raise two boys.  Jill’s wish was to keep her two boys together but that was suddenly fading.  We had many conversations about where Jayden would go and who could care for him.  Her family is small and she didn’t have anyone to take this role on.  Being her best friend, single, no children of my own, I offered to raise him.  I wanted Jill to be able to focus on treatment and not have to worry about this issue.  Thanks to another family friend, we were able to meet with a lawyer and get affairs in place.  She questioned whether or not I was ready for this, and I reassured her I was.  I often wondered if maybe this was why I did not have children of my own, I was meant to raise Jayden.

The 2017 school year began and Jill was in hospice. I went to the house and got Jayden off to school on the first day, took pictures so she could rest.  This was his big day…officially a Haverhill High student.  I reached out to the school Day 1 to inform them of Jayden’s situation.  A couple days later Jayden moved in with me.  It was time.  Jillian was now at the Hospice House and unable to care for him.  I assured her that I would try my very best to raise him as my own and take care of him.  It is challenging at times working two nights a week but thanks to Kelly Mac we make it work.  She has been my rock during this whole process, A true best friend to Jillian and me. Kelly and Jill grew up together and now their kids are best friends growing up together, as well. Jayden chose to be by his mothers’ side during her last breaths.  Kelly’s son and his best friend, Hector helped him get through this difficult time.

Jillian had a memorial mass in her honor a couple weeks after her passing.  Her grandmother, “Nana Big Hair” and I delivered the bread and wine to the priest in honor of her.  An older woman sitting in the front row saw me crying and handed me a note.  It read,“Tears are God’s way of melting a heart frozen in grief”.  I will never forget this woman and her kind soul.  She has no idea how much her words meant to me.

Jayden started playing football for HHS and had practice every night until 7pm.  This truly kept him going.  Keeping him busy was a big part of this process.  Now that football season is over, we will be checking out the Haverhill Boxing Club.  He has a minor set back with a knee injury.  He is basically growing too fast for his body and in physical therapy 2x a week.  I was super excited to spend Christmas with Jayden. However, it was a very sad day without his mother, but I did everything in my power to make it special for him. I surprised him with a trip to Disney World, where we will be joining Kelly Mac in March on vacation. The other surprise — a special gift in memory of Jill.  I know she is shining down and watching over us.  We love and miss you, Jillian!

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year! God Bless. Heather

Read Jillian’s touching letter to Heather here