How to cope when Mama Bear has cancer


Debbie Woodbury

At the beginning of my cancer journey, I understood what Maya Angelou meant when she said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

Once I opened up and started telling my cancer story, I started telling it a lot. After five years, the emotional part of my story has become easier to share - except in one area: My husband and my children. When I talk about them, the same tidal wave of emotion that hit me then hits me again. All I can do is accept and dive into the wave.

It's hard to explain, but anyone who loves doesn't need an explanation. My 20-year old daughter was a newborn when I held her in my arms and first felt it. An overwhelming surge of protectiveness washed over me. In an instant I claimed my primal mama bear fierceness and it imprinted on my psyche forever.Fifteen years later, the phone rang. Because I was alone when I found out my mammogram was suspicious, I decided to sneak back to the breast center without telling my husband. Of course, I didn't want to go alone, but I put sheltering him over my own best interests.

When I came home and told him the truth (and that I now needed a stereotactic biopsy,) I felt horrible about bringing him bad news (and about lying to him by omission.) Four and a half months later, I had a surgical biopsy and returned, alone, to the breast surgeon's office to hear my diagnosis.

When I think back on it now, I realize with some shock that my husband wasn't there because I kept him away (he had gone to every appointment and test since I leveled with him.) Again, I prioritized protecting him above letting him be there for me at a critical moment. Through the entire diagnostic phase, we kept our 15-year old daughter and 12-year old in the dark until I had a treatment plan.

When we finally sat them down, I was glad to tell them I wasn't going to die and would be back to normal after my mastectomy (shows what I didn't know back then.) I remember being shocked at their response, which wasn't good.

When I look back now, I realize I had focused so intently on protecting them from bad news that I had deluded myself into thinking I had been successful.After my mastectomy, I felt extremely isolated. As hard as it was to share bad news about my health, it was even harder to share the emotional fallout of living with cancer. My mama bear wanted to be better, happier and move on with my family, but I simply wasn't able to put cancer behind me so easily.

Now, when I speak with the Pathways Women's Cancer Teaching Project I talk about my children and husband knowing I will tear up because their pain still makes me very emotional. I push on because doctors and nurses need to know how significantly a patient's role as a wife and mother affects her cancer experience. This is the unspoken burden of women with cancer. We are inseparable from our roles as caregiver, nurturer, confidant and emotional touchstone. We take care of others before we take care of ourselves. Our mama bear instinct is primal and viciously strong and it will over-protect what we care about most in the world - our partners, our children, our parents, our families and our friends. We can't help it because our overwhelming drive to protect our loved ones, even to the detriment of ourselves, is a force of nature. We're never going to stop feeling and acting on it, but we must come to grips with reality.

Even a mama bear needs to take care of herself so she can continue taking care of others. This is what I learned the hard way and what I now share with you. In addition to your family and friends, build a support network that is there just for you. No one should do cancer alone - and by that I mean without other people who "get it" and are there to support you without needing you to care for them. Putting yourself first once in a while is necessary to healing. And then, when you're a bit stronger, you can get back to being Mama Bear.

Debbie Woodbury is the founder of WhereWeGoNow, a gathering place for survivors creating inspired healing, wellness and live out loud joy beyond cancer. Debbie is the author of You Can Thrive After Treatment and How to Build an Amazing Life After Treatment, a Huffington Post blogger, an inspirational speaker, a support volunteer with The Cancer Hope Network, a member of the Carol G. Simon Cancer Center Oncology Community Advisory Board, a patient educator with the Pathway Women's Cancer Teaching Center, a wife and mother, and a former very stressed out lawyer. Debbie was honored to be quoted in CURE Magazine in Survivor Defined and Seeing Red: Coping with Anger During Cancer. You can also find Debbie on Twitter and Facebook.

Related Videos
Image of a man with brown hair and a suit and tie.
Image of a woman with brown bobbed hair with glasses.
Yuliya P.L Linhares, MD, and Josie Montegaard, MSN, AGPCNP-BC, experts on CLL
Yuliya P.L Linhares, MD, and Josie Montegaard, MSN, AGPCNP-BC, experts on CLL
Image of Dr. Minesh Mehta at ASCO 2024.
Image of a woman with blond hai
Image of a man with rectangular glasses and short dark hair.
Yuliya P.L Linhares, MD, and Josie Montegaard, MSN, AGPCNP-BC, experts on CLL
Josie Montegaard, MSN, AGPCNP-BC, an expert on CLL
Image of Dana Frost.
Related Content