An unexpected breast cancer diagnosis changed my life. It also provided valuable lessons that have given me hope during a global pandemic.
Four years ago, I heard words no one ever wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
With that one sentence, my world was thrown into chaos.
A busy working mother with a demanding job and an equally demanding toddler, I didn’t have time for a serious illness. But cancer doesn’t wait for anyone’s schedule, so I had to rearrange my life to focus on my health.
Fast-forward to 2020, and suddenly I’ve found myself in a very similar position.
Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 became a global pandemic, and my busy life once again came to a screeching halt as my family and I hunkered down at home to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease.
As I, along with so many others around the globe, began navigating this strange world of social distancing and quarantines, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of déjà vu.
Just as it had become during cancer, my schedule was no longer my own — I felt completely out of control of my own life.
And I wasn’t the only one feeling that way.
My son — who by this time was nearly 6 years old — had his world turned upside-down, as well. His preschool closed, and though we didn’t initially have to struggle to transition to virtual learning, he still had a hard time understanding why he could no longer see his teachers and friends each day.
Even harder, we made the decision to stay away from my in-laws, who’d provided childcare for our son since his infancy.
For the past 3 years that he was in half-day preschool, he spent his afternoons with his grandparents, an arrangement that both they and we loved. But we couldn’t risk their health no matter how difficult it was emotionally for them or our son.
These disruptions and difficult decisions all felt so familiar to me — as I imagine they do to so many others who’ve parented through a serious illness.
Disease — be it COVID-19, cancer, or something else — is an unseen invader, taking control of our bodies and lives often before we even know it’s there. It leaves you feeling lonely, isolated, and in a surreal state of wondering how you’ll make it to the next day.
And while these emotions are difficult enough for adults to process, they can be even more frightening for kids, who are too young to have developed coping mechanisms for managing high levels of stress.
As my family settled into our “new normal” of pandemic life, I found myself turning to lessons I learned during my bout with breast cancer to help us navigate these unsettling times.
During chemo and after my mastectomy, I was mostly home bound, and being stuck at home made me feel isolated from loved ones.
I realized the power of connection to family and friends, and how not having those daily interactions with the ones I loved made the experience of being sick even harder.
Those feelings were amplified during quarantine, so I knew the importance of making time for video calls with family, plus virtual play dates and sharing video messages with friends via apps like Marco Polo for both my son and me.
Sure, it was easier to just veg out in front of the TV, but making time for human interaction boosted our mood far more than a Netflix binge.
And that feeling of connection wasn’t only with people outside our home — I also learned how important it is to spend quality time with my husband and child.
During this pandemic, some of our most fulfilling moments have been when we put away our devices in favor of a board game or relaxing in our backyard.
Serious illness also taught me patience that has helped me navigate the difficult days of the pandemic.
After facing a life-threatening disease, I realized that sweating the small stuff does nothing but cause more worry and frustration in my life. When I feel myself getting upset over something, I stop and think, “Is this worth my emotion, in the big picture?” Usually, it’s not.
This was an invaluable tool as my son began virtual kindergarten this fall.
As we navigated the completely foreign process of logging into multiple platforms and figuring out how to stay engaged with a screen for hours — all while dealing with glitches and outages that some days made online learning impossible — we both struggled with frustration and anger.
But as I felt my temper flare, I remembered that an online glitch isn’t worth a meltdown. In the big picture, these days will be small blips in his overall school experience.
And while patience is one of my biggest takeaways from serious illness, the biggest lesson I learned from my cancer diagnosis and treatment was perspective.
During my illness, there were days I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel good again; days I wondered if life would ever return to some sense of normalcy.
When you’re in the midst of something as life-altering as serious illness or a global pandemic, it can feel as though there’s no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.
And for my child, this feeling was just as strong, and far more frightening.
But when he shares his fears that COVID-19 will never end, and he’ll never enjoy a normal life again, I can reassure him from personal experience that this is simply a season in our lives, and it will pass.
Hand-in-hand, these lessons of patience and perspective guide me as a parent through this pandemic experience. They remind me that these days will not last, and that better times will come.
And they help me recognize that I have the power to make these days good no matter what life throws at us — all I have to do is focus on the positive and remember that if I can handle a life-threatening illness, I can handle this.