Mothers and Children Occupy Fear of Dying From Breast Cancer

PJ Hamel Health Guide
  • When you heard you had breast cancer, whom did you think of first? 

    Was it your children? The bond from mother to child is like no other, stronger even than the invisible cords pulling child to mother. When the words “you have cancer” sank into your belly like a stone, did you see your daughter’s secret smile, the goodnight one she saves just for you as she nods to sleep in your arms? Or maybe you had a sudden vision of your son, ruling his backyard kingdom with a swagger and a Spiderman suit. 

    If you don’t have children, perhaps you thought of your mother. Or maybe your children are launched and living their own lives; but now you and your mother have reversed roles. You’re the mom; she’s the child, depending on you to balance her checkbook, talk to the insurance company, and quiet her fears. To keep her safe from all of life’s harms, both big and little. To fold her in your arms and tell her everything’s OK, just as she held you in her safe embrace so many years ago.

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    Maybe it was even your partner, the yin to your yang, the person who fills in all your blanks. I think not, though. When presented with the fact of our cancer, we tend to think first of those who need us most. Those with the most to lose if we’re no longer around. The ones our death would level like a hurricane mowing down everything in its path. Our children. Our mothers.

    When I was diagnosed with cancer, I thought first of my son, Nik. He was 15 years old, just finishing his freshman year. Full of the confidence earned during that first year in high school, he’d left the little kids in middle school behind, and walked the halls with the big boys: boys with beards and deep voices, boys who drove and drank and ignored their parents. Wise men, he thought; crazy kids, I knew. In truth, somewhere in between; boys in men’s bodies, men with boys’ brains. Nik was just under 5’ tall, and weighed far short of 100 pounds; nevertheless, he had entered the final phase of childhood.

    But when I learned I had cancer, I experienced a tsunami of fear. Fear not for myself; not of dying, or pain, or the loose ends of a life cut short. No, my immediate fear was for Nik: who would feed him, cheer for him at soccer games, hug him for a good report card? More, as he grew older and had his heart broken by one girl, then another, who’d be there to tell him “I’m the only woman who can say I’ve loved you from the moment you were born”?  Whatever his life brought, good and bad, who’d be there to bear witness?

    “God, I can’t die yet. I need eight more years. He’ll be out of college. There could be a woman who loves him, someone other than me. Someone else to hold onto his heart and keep it safe.” I had a moment of panicky fear, then suddenly had the overwhelming feeling—was it God’s voice?—that I had 10 years. At least 10 more years. And I felt a wave of relief, a certainty that I wouldn’t experience my greatest fear: deserting Nik. Leaving my son before he was ready.


  • It’s been 8 years since I first stepped onto the cancer path. Nik, and my husband, my family and friends, we’ve walked on this journey together, and most of us have stayed the course. My sister died 6 years ago; my dad died (of cancer) 4 years ago. My mom wonders how much longer she’ll linger here, before her spirit rejoins the eternal river of life (for a Norwegian Lutheran, she’s pretty out there).

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    And me? I don’t worry about dying from cancer. I see myself taking care of my mother, easing her passage to whatever comes next. I see Nik, now a college senior, striding across the landscape of life like he once walked through the halls of high school… or fought the bad guys in his Spiderman suit.

    You don’t need me anymore, Nik. I feel the cord that binds us stretch, and stretch, and stretch, until it’s nearly transparent, whisper-thin… and then, it breaks. My heart will never let you go, but I got my gift of 8 years. You can fly now. 

    Thank you, God.

Published On: October 01, 2008