Mothering a Daughter with Cancer

Debbie Legault
Debbie Legault

Mother, grandmother, librarian, military spouse, family life educator, take your pick! Debbie Legault was born in British Columbia, Canada to a former RCAF airman father and a Scottish War Bride mother and has lived in other Canadian provinces, Germany and California. Her latest role is as the author of “Mom...It's Cancer”, the story of supporting her 27-year-old daughter as they experienced breast cancer diagnosis and treatment.

A mother and caregiver describes how she views each moment with her daughter differently after her daughter’s breast cancer diagnosis.

This will be my first Mother’s Day since I lost my mother-in-law to breast cancer. I lost my mom several years ago at the ripe old age of 93. I remember that first Mother’s Day after she died and how sad I was about how much I missed being able to pick up the phone to call and give her my love and thank her for being my mom.

That pain, like it often does, has eased with time, but the wound will be torn fresh this year as I grieve the loss of one of the most important women in my life. And at the same time, I will feel incredibly blessed that my daughter is still here to pick up the phone to call me.

As mothers we are not supposed to have a favorite child, and I don’t. Each of my daughters has been such a gift to my life, their individual natures adding such depth to my existence as each of them challenged the world, and me, with questions and daring adventures. I have to admit, however, that since I spent almost a year supporting my daughter Adrienne as she dealt with a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, there is something different in how I feel when I look at her now.

I am not even sure there’s a word to describe it. I just tilted my head to the side like a puppy trying to figure out what the sound is outside as I searched for the term that might express what it’s like. I know I could use the word gratitude, and of course I am grateful that she survived when I know too well it could have gone the other way.

I could use the word admiration, because I watched a 27-year-old woman smile as a nurse hooked her up to chemotherapy drugs for 20 weeks knowing how crappy she would feel a few hours later. There’s a tinge of despair mixed in because it wasn’t something I could make go away and because if anyone other than an oncology nurse had put into her body what was necessary for her to slay the dragon, I would have taken them out.

There is of course the joy when I see her new haircut, or hear the peals of laughter as she engages in a water fight with her nephew or stand with her as we put together a meal. But even all of those words combined together don’t fit.

There’s a lot out there about second chances, and Adrienne and I have talked about the fact that neither of us feel like we messed it up the first time around. Cancer didn’t heal wounds in our relationship because there were no wounds to heal. I know I made mistakes along the way, but when she looks back, she doesn’t see it as I do. We went into the cancer experience on very solid ground and we weathered the storm by combining our strengths and leaning on the trust in our history to get us through.

She knew I would be there when she needed me, and I was. I have no regrets about the choice I made to put my life on hold to be with her. The truth is that I needed to be there like I need air to breathe. The experience has changed both of us in ways that are very profound, and the way I feel when she walks into a room is just one of them.

The closest I can come is likening it to the wonder I felt the first time I looked at her seconds after she was born. It’s that kind of love, the original one that fills you up in places inside your spirit that you didn’t even know were there.

When I see her walk in the door with a smile on her face and a “Hi, Mommy,” hug in her arms, there is just so much more than there was before. When she was a baby I would sometimes just sit and stare at her, and I find myself doing that now, taking in her every gesture, her every word. It’s like we have gone back in time to when things between us were new and I want to capture every moment as we move forward.

Perhaps it’s because the innocence bubble I used to live in, that I would not have to say goodbye to any of my children, has been burst for me. I’m trying to build a lifetime of memories just in case. All I know is that every moment she is still here with me counts so very much.

Funnily enough, that bubble is still there for my other daughters. It’s like I have walled off what happened to Adrienne because I simply couldn’t manage having all of them on that side of the “Motherhood Fear” equation.

I am hopeful that as with the pain of losing my mother, the fear of losing Adrienne will ease as time goes on and my need to freeze her in time over and over again will pass. But I don’t think this new feeling will ever go away. And I can live with that.

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