The Balancing Act of Being a Cancer Caregiver and Parent

January 19, 2021
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.

The balancing act of being a caregiver and parent simultaneously is one that requires acceptance and fierceness.

As a parent of multiple young women, I do not have a favorite. Each of them is a magical creature to me and I wonder, more often than I can say, at the people they have turned out to be as adults. They each have their own strengths and limitations they have done a very good job of figuring out how to manage their lives successfully after having flown the protection of the nest.

To me, one of the primal roles of motherhood is protecting and sheltering my children. I represent the mother bear analogy in my life one hundred percent. I don’t care who you are, or what you are, if I perceive you to be a threat to my children if I will do everything within my power to keep you at bay. It doesn’t really matter that they are all adults now— they are still my babies, so the rule still applies.

So where did that leave me when the threat was cancer?

Helpless. It was the worst feeling imaginable.

I have come to realize exactly how helpless I felt because I can’t stop myself from overcompensating in my protective role now. I find myself being hypervigilant with all of my children, and with my grandchildren. I have done my best over the years to allow them to make mistakes because as long as they aren’t morally or physically threatening, I firmly believe it is the best way to learn. These days I keep looking for things that aren’t there, trying to analyze every situation to its most extensive possible what-might-happen scenario so I can take steps to prevent it from ending in a bad outcome. But it’s making me a little crazy.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. The helplessness of watching a loved one experience cancer and the side effects of lifesaving treatments is devastating. The potential loss of that person is something that hovers around like a dark cloud on the horizon, just waiting for an errant wind to blow it your way.I used to live in a bubble of not having to think of outliving my children. I think most people will acknowledge that it is not supposed to be the way of things. I don’t have that luxury anymore.

I know that I helped my daughter throughout her cancer experience, and I am helping her still.I know that the things I did to make her life easier, to relieve her discomfort, to bring her joy were of immense value.I know that being on the other end of the phone anytime something pulls her back into the abyss is a lifeline she hangs onto with every fiber of her being. I guess I just wish that to me their value balanced out what I could not do, which was to make it go away.

I am working on accepting that I did not fail as a mother. Something came along over which even my magical maternal power had no control. It’s a cliched bitter pill to swallow, and I know cognitively that my hypervigilance now is me trying to control everything that I can to compensate. Unfortunately, the thinking part of my brain is desperately trying to catch up with the emotions I’m still dealing with. The biggest challenge I have with that is that there is no real end to cancer, and so I will have to figure out some way to achieve equilibrium having to constantly bear the weight of that reality on one side of the teeter-totter.

It’s going to be quite the balancing act, but I know I’ll get there. Thankfully the people I raised to adulthood are full of such compassion and patience that I know when I do, they’ll be waiting to give me a hug.

I wish that for all the caregivers out there.