Passing Isolation

CURE, Fall 2005, Volume 4, Issue 3

Emily Cousins' personal story about dealing with breast cancer as a young mother.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer the week before my first child was born. When I was halfway through chemotherapy, I learned about a movie theater that showed matinees for parents with babies. I eagerly packed up my son and headed to the theater early to join in the pre-movie chats about nap cycles and pacifiers. But when I walked into the theater and saw 200 mothers—half of them breastfeeding—all I could think was, “I am not like them. I have cancer. I don’t belong here.”

Cancer is isolating. While my friends were soaring along with their careers and families, my life had been hijacked. I was now consumed with finding good veins for chemo and living until my son entered first grade. Standing in that theater, I feared I would be out of step with my peers forever.

For starters, I was bald. At the age of 33, I had been temporarily thrown into menopause, something my friends wouldn’t cope with for 20 years. Instead of breastfeeding my son, I was often too sick to give him his bottle. I lay awake at night fearing the cancer had spread, that the pain in my leg was really a tumor. I routinely looked at my son and wondered if he would remember me if I died in a few years.

How could my friends understand all of this? Some did and some didn’t. A few simply said, “You are going to be fine. I have a good feeling about this.” While I appreciated the sentiment, it minimized all the uncertainty I faced. They would have known how to comfort me through divorce or infertility, but cancer just wasn’t on their radar screens yet. That left me in the role of the educator, explaining each test and treatment option. Most friends were eager learners, but I longed to talk to people who already spoke the language.

And yet, I didn’t fully relate to the patients I met at the cancer center. The average age of breast cancer patients is 64, and most of the women at the center carried pictures of their grandchildren and talked about early retirement.

Then, in the middle of treatment, I found a support group for young women with breast cancer. When I walked into the first meeting and saw eight youthful faces, I was flooded with relief. These were women my age who were fluent in the ways of mammograms and CT scans, and who viewed cancer fears as routine aspects of life.

Marie, a 34-year-old mother of a toddler, told me she too felt guilty for not having enough energy to play with her child. Lara, a 36-year-old art therapist, shared her fear that chemo would take away her chance of having a baby. When I was considering a prophylactic mastectomy, Deborah, an attractive, irreverent engineer, lifted up her shirt to show me her scars. Maureen was the gentle group leader, diagnosed in her early 20s, who assured me that the fear of recurrence never goes away, but it comes less often. Hearing their stories, and watching them nod knowingly while I told mine, I discovered a new definition of what was normal. I had found a new community.

The friendships I made in the group sustained me through treatment and beyond. And slowly, as my body began to recover, so did my sense of being connected to those around me. Having hair helped. So did gaining the strength to carry my son and other small victories that most mothers take for granted. Gradually, I stopped feeling like a cancer patient and started regaining my old life back. I still had moments of feeling alone—contemplating mortality is a fundamentally lonely process—but my old friends were becoming more adept at listening.

About a year after I was diagnosed, my son learned to walk. One day at the park, I realized that none of the other parents would have guessed that I had just battled a life-threatening illness. To them, I was just another mother. In some ways I was, and some ways I wasn’t. But I knew I wasn’t alone.

Colm Scott is now 3 years old. Emily and her husband Dan Scott are expecting their second child in December.