You’re Never Prepared to Learn Your Adult Child Has Cancer

September 10, 2020
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.

I received a phone call that would alter the course of my life in ways that I couldn’t possibly have imagined. On the other end was my 27-year-old daughter and I sat dazed and confused as she tearfully said, “Mom … it’s cancer.”

There are moments in a person’s life that mean that a big change is coming. Those moments include graduation day, getting married, and having a child.

On March 15, 2019, I received a phone call that would alter the course of my life in ways that I couldn’t possibly have imagined. On the other end was my 27-year-old daughter and I sat dazed and confused as she tearfully said, “Mom … it’s cancer.”

The first thought I had was, “But you’re too young.” That is the course of my denial in a nutshell. When she first told me that she was investigating the lump she had found in the shower, I never once acknowledged that it might be cancer. I did online research about all the other things it could be because there was no way it was worst-case scenario.

I have never been more unprepared for news in my life.

I was able to pack up and move my life thousands of miles away from home and move into her one-bedroom apartment where I stayed for almost a year. I am more grateful than I can express that our relationship allowed us to dance around each other, both literally and figuratively, because I needed to be there like I need water to survive.

There were times when the anger and anxiety were so huge that there was barely room for either of us to breathe. There were times when we laughed so hard our sides ached (and I’ll admit I might have peed myself a little). There were times when we had to retreat to our corners because the fear had manifested into an ugly beast that gnashed its teeth and engulfed us with its foul breath. But there were also times of peace when the universe allowed her to not feel so much pain, so much sorrow, so much betrayal.

I thought I knew what was coming for her. One thing that I learned from holding her hand through the surgeries, treatments and various things she took or did to help with the side effects of the surgeries and treatments, as well as the added things you have to do to manage the side effects of THOSE (I’m sure you get the picture) was that my knowledge was woefully lacking.

There were many general pieces of information out there that apply to all women diagnosed with breast cancer, but when I went to look for resources specifically for people like me, mothers of young women going through the experience, there wasn’t a lot for me to find. And believe me, I’m a magical unicorn when it comes to Googling.

One of my biggest “aha” moments about how much outliers my daughter and I were happened in the radiation waiting room. It was winter, so both of us were wearing hats to keep warm, and when it was she, not I, who got up to go in for treatment the puppy-dog-head-tilt moments happened every time.

I could see the other patients and their family members struggle to reconcile what they were seeing, the innocence bubble burst. They would make eye contact with me and most of the time I would just have to look away. I just didn’t have room for their own shock and sorrow.

I am overjoyed to be able to say that the treatments worked, and my daughter is in full remission. Now I am living in “The After”. “The Before” is when you live in a world where your child did not have cancer.When you did not have to think about what it might be like if the battle were lost. In “The After” it is sharing a significantly dark sense of humor with your child talking about exactly where you write in a dating profile that you’re a breast cancer survivor and that you still have both your boobs.

In “The After” one thing has become perfectly clear. There is no end date to cancer. There is just The End …

And so, we go on, with the MRI’s and exams to check and see if the monster has returned. With me looking at my phone every time she calls hoping beyond all measure that all I’ll hear is … “Hey Mom … how ya doin’?”