Cervivor Dad

It’s strange to think back on my experience as a husband and father when Mary was in treatment because for most of that time I put myself to the side. Everything was put on pause to focus on making sure she was getting to her appointments, as comfortable as her body would allow, and – on the good days – eating.

I’m not complaining. It’s just what you do. When a little kid gets hurt, you run to check on them. When something catches fire, you put it out. And when your wife is diagnosed with cervical cancer that’s spread to her lymph nodes, everything else seems pretty small by comparison.

When you’re in an emergency situation, you suddenly become very clearheaded and logical. “Let’s see. The dog is on fire, so that’s probably the first priority. Let’s get a blanket on her. Okay, that’s out. Mental note: call the vet after this. Now the teenager is under a burning rafter and the baby is in the playpen. So yell at the teenager to carry the dog out and grab the baby with one hand and the diaper bag with the other, just in case.” Later, after the emergency is over, your brain exits Survival Mode and lets you collapse into a pile of trauma-flavored Jell-O.

For those months between diagnosis and the “all clear” sign, it was an emergency situation. My brain shut down most of my emotions so I could A) better attend to Mary’s needs and B) survive the stress and fear without sinking into despair or having seven simultaneous heart attacks.

I’m lucky. My coworkers are very understanding and sympathetic when it comes to family matters and the nature of my job allows me to work from home. Thanks to that, once Mary’s treatment went from surgery to external radiation every weekday, chemo once a week, and several internal radiation torture sessions, I was able to stay home with her and bring my laptop to chemo.

What was hard was watching her waste away. That was a sadness I couldn’t turn off. She had no appetite and became weak and skeletal. Walking 20 feet to the bathroom was exhausting for her. It hurt to see her suffer, and I think I used my work as an excuse to sit in the living room to witness her suffering a little less, which I’m not proud of. I never allowed myself to imagine what would happen if she didn’t make it. It’s like asking what you would do after the world blew up.

Helping the kids was easier. Our teenager was zealously optimistic. He knew with the certainty of youth that his mom would be fine. I was jealous. Our daughter, on the other hands, buries her emotions (like her dad), so comforting her took some effort. Once she was ready to talk, she appreciated the reassurance, but until then I just told her it would be okay and trust that the words made it into her ears.

Their grades suffered, but I couldn’t get upset with them. I was letting the place become a pigsty and slipping some at work myself. You may have heard, cancer is a little distracting. I figured we’d all straighten out when it was over, and we eventually did.

A year and a half later, Mary still has trouble. Some lymph nodes were removed, so her legs and feet swell up. She also has some serious anxiety. It’s gotten better, but she has good days and bad days. Seeing her struggle made me open up about my own lifelong depression and anxiety, mostly so I could help her. I talk her through bad times if she needs it and we give each other space if one of us needs that. The kids know that sometimes people need alone time and that’s okay.

Like many who face death, we came out the other end more focused, like we were forged in the fire. Mary speaks and writes about battling cancer and her volunteering fills me with awe and pride. The kids are more appreciative of basically everything. And I learned that openness is not lethal. We’re all doing things we want to do, skipping things we don’t, and being fuller versions of ourselves.

We know that if it resurfaces and she has to go back into treatment, we’ll have a better idea of what to expect and what to ask. We also know the statistics and the odds. But until her next regular oncology appointment, we’re just living life.

Dan lives in Richmond, Va. with his wife Mary and their two kids. Dan and Mary met when she started coming to see bands play at his house. She fell madly in love with him after hearing his college radio show which featured terrible music and a fictional wrestling program. Now Dan proofreads credit card websites, which is as exciting as it sounds.

Mother’s Day and Survivorship

Life after cancer can easily be compared to a snow globe.  One that has been shaken vigorously. It can feel like we are plopped down, left to figure out every aspect of life. The cancer community regularly refers to post-cancer life or living life with cancer, as “survivorship.” It certainly is a process and one that comes with some amazing days and moments, but also extremely dark and lonely ones as we adjust to this new life and grieve our old one.

For gynecological cancer survivors, especially survivors of cervical cancer, Mother’s Day can come with an array of feelings. It can be one of the harder days for us, where we find ourselves digging deep for joy. Cervical cancer treatment, more often than not, steals reproductive ability leaving the patient with the decision to pursue fertility preservation or to begin treatment right away. This decision alone can be extremely overwhelming and is one of the first ones the patient must make. Unfortunately, not all patients are given the option, and if they are, not all can afford the cost, leaving the patient to decide….life or death.

Cervivor Dusty & her mom

We recently asked the Cervivor community how they were feeling about the upcoming holiday. As expected, we received a wide range of responses. Prior to asking our community, we thought that perhaps it all depends on where you are in your survivorship. However, most all responses conveyed loss. Even those who had chosen not to be mothers prior to their diagnosis and those who were already moms acknowledged that there is loss and pain in our community that centers around this choice that is often snatched from our hands. For many women in our community, they choose to focus on their own moms and find joy in those relationships. Dusty and her husband chose not to have children prior to cancer, but she recalls her mother’s loving kindness on this day, “My mom spent Mother’s Day the year I had cancer with me, taking care of me as the painful side effects of my treatment became too much. It’s a bittersweet memory that reminds me just how wonderful my mom really is.

Paulette and her husband (far right) with her mother and extended family.

Paulette is another cervical cancer survivor who made the decision long before cancer, that she did not want to be a mother. Her approach to the holiday is to honor her own mom,” I chose to not have children, so I’ve never felt the loss of never being able to be a mom. I have a difficult at times relationship with my mom, but I do respect her and celebrate that day with her.”

Sadly, there are also women in our community who have both lost their mother’s and their own ability to have children, making Mother’s Day doubly difficult. Heidi lost her mom nearly eight years ago, but the grief is still vivid, “Mother’s day is very difficult. I lost my own mom in 2000. And because of the cervical and uterine cancer, I lost the chance to get to have kids of my own that I really wanted.”

Being a mother prior to cancer doesn’t exempt you from the pain of losing fertility. These women can be overlooked in the discussion.

Cervivor Ana and her two children.

Ana, who was a mom at the time of her diagnosis confesses, “I grapple with being grateful for what I have and sad for the loss of not being able to have more children.”

Mary and family.

Mary is another survivor who had children prior to her treatment. She admits that having that decision taken out of her hands feels unfair,” I am grateful for the two I have and, I considered myself done so I’m at peace with what it is. I hated that the option was taken off the table for me, but I had to live for the ones I have.”

Like all other aspects of survivorship, grieving fertility and/or motherhood looks different for everyone. It’s not linear. Some days are just better than others. For some women, like Tina who never had the opportunity, reminders are always there but it can hit harder and out of the blue like in this conversation with her neighbor.  “When I first moved into my neighborhood one of the moms said to me ‘my daughter can’t wait for you to have kids so she can babysit.’ I was at a loss for words. I love celebrating my mom, but I find it to be a hard reminder of what was taken from me.”  There are many Cervivors like Lauren. Lauren lost her fertility at a very young age. She chose treatment to save her life, but not without costs that she lives with daily. Mother’s Day hits hard for me. As do pregnancy announcements and baby showers. Lost my fertility due to cervical cancer at 23. Knowing I won’t ever be pregnant is hard sometimes.” 

Tina and her fur babies

Cancer is just unfair. The diagnosis, the treatment, and the life you’re left with after can feel like a shell of who you were before. Survivorship is hard, and many days can feel harder than cancer itself. Like all other aspects of our new life, we must find ways to process, heal, and exist in our new bodies and minds. Often it comes down to choosing how we will approach Mother’s Day and what is best for us. It’s not a one size fits all. Some of us will find it is best to avoid certain places, while others are able to lean into celebrations of mothers in our lives. Some Cervivors will go about their day as any other day, while some will find healing in the shear acknowledgment that they are alive. Cervivors like Danielle will hold their children just a little closer that day, “I got my first all clear of stage 3b March 20th. I am a mother of 3, not only is this the most beautiful Spring I have ever seen, but the most precious Mother’s Day I will ever know.

Wherever you find yourself this Mother’s Day and however you are choosing to spend it, Cervivor wishes you a day of peace and joy! We are Cervivor.