by Jen Campisano
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…” Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I haven’t read Dickens since high school, but I found myself mulling over the opening lines of his renowned novel when I meant to be thinking about what it’s like to parent while having cancer. And then it hit me: my subconscious was ahead of the rest of my brain. My tenth grade English class was serving me my answer, twenty years later.
Being diagnosed with cancer within months of becoming a mom was the best of times. It was also the worst of times. It was the spring of hope and the winter of despair.
In the spring of 2011, I gave birth to the love of my life, my son Quinn. My husband and I were first-time parents to a healthy little boy. As Dickens said, we had everything before us.
Five months later, we faced our winter of despair as I found out a hard lump in my right breast wasn’t in fact mastitis but instead aggressive breast cancer that had grown to larger than a four centimeter tumor. We quickly learned it had metastasized to my lungs, chest wall, and spleen. For a moment, we had nothing before us.
I weaned my son from nursing and began chemotherapy in the days before my son turned six months old. Earlier this month, we celebrated his fourth birthday. So far in his short life, I have been bald twice, read statistics that said I’d have a less than twenty percent chance of watching him start kindergarten, and have been on three different chemo cocktails. I have had three surgeries to amputate and reconstruct my breasts. I endured five weeks of daily radiation therapy.
Nearly four years after my initial diagnosis, I am going on seventeen months of no evidence of disease (cancerland’s holy grail). I’ve seen my son learn to swim, learn the alphabet, learn how to say “pumpkin” in Spanish (“calabaza”). Last night, as I tucked him into bed, my boy asked me if I knew Maddie, a new girl in his school.
“She’s in the blue class,” he explained.
“No, I don’t know her,” I said. “Is she your friend?”
“Do you want her to be your friend?”
“No.” Then, in a dreamy voice I’ve rarely heard from him, he added, “She has blonde hair all the way down her back, in curls, and she wears purple shoes with SPARKLES like magic.”
“So you like her hair?”
“Yeah,” he said, and then he turned over and fell asleep.
And I realized my little boy had just shared with me one of his first crushes, and my heart swelled. I get to be here for this. He trusted me with this knowledge. My heart is so full. I am so lucky.
Today, I had chemo. The steroids they inject me with as part of my pre-meds make me agitated and cranky. I feel fatigued from the chemotherapy, but unable to sleep because I can feel the steroids buzzing through me like a swarm of bees. As they wear off tomorrow, I will crash and feel utterly depleted for most of the day. My nausea will be stronger, and anti-nausea pills will cause marked drowsiness. Later in the week, as Easter approaches, more stomach issues will ensue, but my mental fog will begin to clear.
My son will be in preschool three days this week, a typical week. I will feel guilty because his childhood already seems like it is slipping away more quickly than I’d like and I want to savor every minute with him but I do not have the energy for that. That is the other side of the coin: my heart aches because I want more time. Always more time.
Four years with metastatic breast cancer is incredible. But I am greedy. It is not nearly enough. My mother-in-law turns seventy-one tomorrow, and I hope with everything I’ve got that I might get to see another thirty-five years, too.
Meanwhile, I live in this strange Dickensian world of extreme polarity, feeling elated at every minor milestone (I got my son to floss!) and major celebration (he swam all the way across the pool by himself!) while facing my mortality at a closer range and far earlier than most people must. Will I get to see him start kindergarten? Will my luck hold? Is a new treatment on the horizon just in case? I have to tip the scales toward Belief.
Jen is a first-time mom who was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 32, when her son was just five months old. She writes about navigating the intersection of motherhood and cancer-land at www.boobyandthebeast.com. More than three years after her diagnosis, she is still in active treatment, but also actively enjoying watching her son become a little boy. She hopes she will be lucky enough to see him become a man.