December 1, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols
Carol Duran was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in 2008. "The first thought was, 'I'm going to lose my life, and leave my kids without a mom,'" Duran recently recalled.
The Alhambra, Calif., resident received much of her treatment as an outpatient at City of Hope, returning home most nights to her children. “It was nice to be able to come home even though I wasn’t feeling that great. At least my boys could climb into my bed or I could sit on the floor and play with them or read to them. I was with them a lot, which was important to me. In case something happened, I wanted them to remember me.”
Today, Duran is healthy, back to work, and sharing new parenting adventures with her husband, Jaime.
We recently asked Duran to look back at the time of her diagnosis and ask herself, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? What wisdom, soothing words or practical tips would you give your newly diagnosed self? In a previous article, she reflected on how cancer patients can improve their care and their personal health.
Here, she offers guidance on parenting, relationships and daily life.
Tell your children what they need to know. Because they were only 3, my boys only knew that I was sick, but didn’t understand what I was going through. I was bald and afraid of scaring them, but they just saw me as Mom. They just thought, "She changed her hairdo; she’s wearing a scarf." Through the years, they have asked more questions. One of my sons is more intuitive, and when I go for follow-up appointments, he’ll ask, “You’re fine, right? The cancer didn’t come back, did it?” They have seen me do interviews for City of Hope and know about cancer and that people can die from it. I never wanted City of Hope to be a scary place for them and it hasn’t been. Children often get their cues on how to react by seeing how their parents handle situations. They weren’t scared because they saw me enjoying myself.
Give yourself permission. First off, it’s OK to be scared. We mothers have to have the brave face with family and our significant others, yet inside we’re falling apart. You have to give yourself that permission to be scared, to grieve, to cry – then to move on. "OK, what am I going to do about this?" I was my best cheerleader. “You can do this!” Now I feel like I could get through anything. Relationship-wise, this was a huge test in marriage and family. You get to see how people come together. Some just don’t have it in them, but you realize who you’re really with. My husband was a real trouper. We had this huge faith in God, my doctors and City of Hope. I felt safe, that I was going to be OK.
Reprioritize what’s important and let go of everything else. I used to worry about my house getting cleaned, and having to get everything done. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to say, "Why are we stressing over that?” My job is going to be there. If something happens to me, they will move on. The important things in my life are my children and my husband. I need to make sure my relationships with my family and with the people I love are intact. You need to tell people how you feel about them – now. When you’re hit with illness, your sense of mortality becomes this huge thing: "Oh, God, I could really die." You want to put things in order. That’s OK. You need to do that.
Resume your normal routines. When you’re going through treatment, have as much normalcy as possible; whether going outside to watch your children play or going to the supermarket. Those things are important so you’re not just sitting in your bed sick. Even though I felt terrible, I made every effort to be with my sons all the time. I still volunteered – with a mask – at their nursery school. It was a good distraction. I got to see them playing and having fun, and that just brought joy to me. I needed that. You need to do the things you still need to do for your life. Even though you don’t look and feel so great, sometimes it’s nice to feel like you’re normal and your life isn’t just going to stop because you’re going through treatment. You still have to live your life – not as if it were your last day (because it could be). The sun comes up every day and it goes down every day. You have to get yourself up and do the best you can every single day.
Accept help – then help others. I don’t think I could have gotten through this without support. My mother was helping and I had a caregiver who was wonderful with my children, so my husband was able to take me to chemo and stay with me. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, but it was nice to have people come to me and say, "You are not a burden and I’m going to do this for you." Friends can do a lot – babysitting, cleaning the house, laundry, shopping for groceries. You don’t feel great, your spouse is running ragged working and taking care of the family, so it’s really important to have a good support system to help you maneuver the things you take for granted. Some friends fell by the wayside, but others unexpectedly came to the forefront. You begin to value the people who came to your aid. And also, it has made me be that person. When my friend was diagnosed with cancer, I was her go-to person day or night. I would walk her through it, hold her hand. I also made sure her husband and kids were OK. When you’ve been diagnosed and you’ve gone through it, you need to pay it forward.
Keep doing things that bring you joy. We have always loved camping at Carpinteria beach near Santa Barbara, and kept doing it even during my treatment. By the fourth day of the chemo cycle, I was usually feeling better, so we’d go camping for three or four days on those days I felt OK. I’d sit on the beach and be with the boys. We’d barbecue and have wonderful times. I’d have to take little naps, but my husband would take charge of the kids. When we’d take them to Legoland, I’d have to sit or maybe not go on some of the rides, but I could still be part of what was going on in their lives. I refused to miss anything.