On Cancer, Grief and Motherhood
For a while, it seemed like Jennifer had the perfect life. She was expecting a baby girl and marrying the love of her life. Then things took a turn and she was thrown into single motherhood with a cancer diagnosis.
BY Jennifer Cain
PUBLISHED July 24, 2018
Sometimes life seems too perfect. Stars align, and things seem to just go your way. Tragedy and misfortune are the furthest things from your mind – until they aren’t.
On June 30, 2015, I found out, at age 39, that I was going to have my first child. She was so wanted and wished for, and I was incredibly happy. I had found my soulmate, Matt, just a year prior, and we were elated to find out that we were expecting a baby girl. Our daughter was born on March 11, 2016. We named her Evangeline: “bearer of good news.” And she sure is. Now at 2 years old, she is so, so literally the light of my life.
My love and I set a wedding date of Oct. 28, 2017. We thought about a beautiful, fall wedding in the state of Florida, where signs of autumn are few and far between. We decided to have fewer than 100 people — friends and family who were as happy for us as we were. We chose a beautiful hotel with a rooftop location where our guests could see the sunset and enjoy an open bar. This was our plan, and we obsessively checked the weather report for days leading up to our nuptials. Clear skies and a comfortable high of 70 degrees was the forecast. This was going to be a day to remember for the rest of our lives.
I don’t know about omens and have never had to consider them before, but perhaps they were looming. It rained on our wedding day and yes, we heard it’s supposed to be good luck. The pessimist in me says it was not.
Just three weeks before our wedding — after finding a lump in my left breast, diagnostic mammograms, and some biopsies — I was diagnosed with stage 3A mucinous carcinoma, breast cancer. A week before our wedding, my soon-to-be husband and I sat in a three-hour appointment with my surgeon, who recommended a radical left mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy.
The love of my life and I were already facing “in sickness and in health,” and we hadn’t even uttered one vow yet.
I picked up my wedding dress, greeted out-of-town family, produced 50 gift bags and tied 100 ribbons for the most special day of my life, knowing that I had a rare cancer and a long fight ahead of me. I disclosed the news only to family and close friends, never wanting to place a dark cloud over our wedding. My doctors and nurses were very compassionate and suggested that we focus on our special day, then deal with my treatment. So, we did that, and despite the rain, our day was perfect. Because after all, weddings aren’t about weddings, they’re about marriage and all that goes with it. Partnership. Love. Dedication. I had found all of it.
Three weeks later, I had my surgery. My handsome new husband slept nearby on a hard, plastic recliner as I recovered. He asked questions and got upset when a nurse didn’t show me a kind bedside manner. He was my rock. He supported me as I set up future appointments with my oncologist and radiologist for January and after, I planned to start four rounds of chemo, followed by radiation.
But sometimes, just when you think you’ve seen the worst of things, life throws you another blow.
My husband, of less than three months, was taken from my daughter and me in a tragic car accident on Jan. 14 of this year.
In a blink, I went from a new wife/mom and cancer patient to a newly-wedded widow and single mother battling breast cancer alone.
My family lives nine states away; my friends are spread out across the country. My only support and true love was gone. Devastation isn't nearly a good enough descriptor for what I felt at that point.
Cancer doesn’t care that your husband died, that you’re the only breadwinner or that you are solely responsible for a child’s precious life. Chemotherapy doesn’t stop and wait for you to get yourself together or for you to catch up on sleep after crying for hours on end.
So I kept going, and I started chemotherapy two weeks after my husband left this earth. My first infusion was rough, as I sat with a dear friend and a blanket composed of photos of my husband and me that warmed me. The blanket was all I physically had of him during my first chemotherapy treatment.
Chemo came and went, I got sick, I lost my hair. The beautiful thing about 2-year-old children is they don’t care if you have hair. It’s not weird, it’s not shocking and my daughter never gave a second glance. I was bald, “like Daddy was bald, so what’s the big deal?” I was still Mommy, hair or not. My head was smooth, and she loved to rub her hands over it.
She was my comfort at a time when I most needed my rock.
I started five weeks of radiation in May. I was met with fatigue that made me angry, as I was not the mom I wanted to be. I felt like a horrible parent— for microwaving her dinner, for not going for a walk at sunset, for lying on the couch while she played.
Cancer and grief were getting the best of me almost every day. Every hour of every day was now filled with an inner voice telling me to get up and parent: "Make dinner, go out for ice cream, play with her baby dolls, talk about Daddy and tell her stories. Make sure she doesn’t forget him."
It takes every ounce of energy I have to keep this precious, innocent girl’s life normal. This unfortunately, is our new normal.
Most parents know that with parenthood comes selflessness, and enduring things like sleepless nights, eating dinner after everyone goes to bed, wearing old clothes while your child wears new ones. I knew that and was ready for it. But I was not ready for this kind of parenting: trying to play with and hold your child and not make her feel bad when she jumps into your chest for a hug, causing excruciating pain. When all you want to do is pick her up, but you aren’t sure if you’ll drop her. Crying after she goes to sleep, never wanting to inflict your emotional and physical pain on her sweet little soul.
Along the road of my treatment, I received the most remarkable, overwhelming support at the hands of friends, family, strangers. I would be remiss to try to take all the credit for surviving and getting where I am today. I am so thankful for people who got on airplanes and flew to help feed and bathe my daughter when my Neulasta patch would go off and cause two days of debilitating bone pain. People who just celebrated the happiest day of my life three months prior were back again, cleaning, running errands and helping me find my smile.
I get out of bed each day for one reason and one reason only: Evangeline. I so quickly became a statistic and found every ounce of strength, and absorbing the strength that my husband left behind, to feed her, to play with her, to laugh with her, to leave the house and to do anything that would help her know that life is normal and not falling apart. She deserves this. She deserves the best of me.
I never feel alone. But dealing with cancer, then grief and single parenthood seemed impossible. But here we are, and we are OK.
Today, I am cancer free and about to begin my hormonal therapy. My hair is growing back, and my daughter is happy. We have beautiful memories of our family, however drastically that dynamic changed in one night. At times of darkness, you can feel suffocated and helpless, and the urge to give up is strong. However, the urge to love and give my daughter the best, most immaculate life was stronger. In this tunnel, there is a very teeny, tiny light that I can see miles away, but it’s good to know it’s there.
And if my daughter remembers any of this later in her life – and I hope she does – I hope it brings her strength, courage and perseverance. I hope she knows that when tragedy or devastating circumstances lead you to believe that life is over, that maybe actually, it has just begun.
Jennifer Cain is a Client Support Manager for Parkmobile and freelance writer who lives in Clearwater, Florida. She is navigating life as a new widow and single mother to her daughter, Evangeline. Find her at Facebook.com/Jennifercain