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Parenting Teenagers When You Have Cancer


It can feel like you're running out of time to get it right, says this patient with metastatic breast cancer.

When I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer three and a half years ago, my kids were in high school and middle school. My youngest was just 12 and in 6th grade. I've met many women similarly diagnosed since then, but with very young children. It is at those moments that I feel especially fortunate to have made it through the elementary years without cancer being a part of our immediate-family life.

I think of those elementary-school years as a period of easy happiness and easy-to-solve problems. That, naturally, is not how it is anymore. With metastatic breast cancer, life is a balancing act between living and dying: Living every day (or as many as possible) with gratitude, action, hope while having the knowledge that somewhere in your body cancer is possibly — probably – actively moving to kill you.

Having teenagers (and young adult kids) is also a balancing act. It can feel like being forced to walk a treacherous balance beam that, for added danger, is perched between skyscrapers. There's so much you want to do to help them and so much you know they have to do for themselves. Mix in cancer, and it can feel like there's so little time for them to get it right.

When I was first diagnosed, I told myself that I wanted to live to see what kind of man my then 12-year-old son would become. But if you've ever been around teenage boys, especially high school freshman boys, you know I pinned my hopes on a risky goal. I still want the answer to that initial question, but getting there is not easy. There are countless and unknown-to-me obstacles that he faces every day. The stakes are high; we see that in newspapers all the time. Teenagers, like their parents with or without cancer, must cross a similarly difficult balance beam.

I know that I am lucky to have had the peaceful-in-hindsight early years with my kids. But it doesn't take much for me, the parent with metastatic cancer, to be knocked down by my kids' struggles — college rejections, fractured friendships, dashed job hopes, unhealthy relationships. I often find myself willing to barter away anything if it could mean my kids will have a smoother time getting where they want to go. I feel, honestly, like having me and my diagnosis should be enough. I know, intellectually and in my heart, that there are innumerable people right here and all around the world who are in much more pain than I or my children will (knock on wood) ever experience. But the desire remains the same: I want to see my kids do well and be happy and their struggles force me to acknowledge that maybe I won't.

That's the truth of parenting with metastatic cancer: We want what everyone else gets, no matter the age of our children.

Even as I enjoy the moments I do have with them, wanting what someone else will get can color how I act and feel. I'm acutely aware that I fight intense internal pressure to get them through whatever hardship or situation is in the way. I believe part of that is cancer talking — the ever-present knowledge that my time may be more limited than it seems at the moment. I know they feel that intensity coming off me, and it's not healthy for anyone.

It's in those moments that I try to pull back and be mindful that both good times and bad times are important in life. Watching my children find their own paths through difficult situations is as important as seeing them succeed in expected ways. I remind myself that it's possibly more meaningful since it allows me to see them for the people they are, not as the people I imagine they will someday be. This chance to watch my children during these crucial years is something that I may have missed if cancer hadn't narrowed my focus. If there's any moment I can be a part of in my kids' lives, I will be there. And I will be there cheering them on, quietly and to myself sometimes but with the watchful eye of someone who doesn't want to miss what she has right now.

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