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The secret truth that breast cancer taught me about being a mom

I always wanted to make things magical for my two sons. My breast cancer diagnosis didn't quite fit into that plan.
After my breast cancer diagnosis I worried about everything moms always worry about: Who will make meals? Remember play dates?
After my breast cancer diagnosis I worried about everything moms always worry about: Who will make meals? Remember play dates? Rebecca Dube

When I got the "you have breast cancer" phone call, I was folding pants in my sons' room. My doctor was sympathetic, and surprised. "I didn't think it would be cancer," she said. Yeah, me neither.

I hung up the phone, walked into the kids’ bathroom, shut the door and sobbed quietly on the floor. I was surrounded by aggressively cheerful yellow walls because when we moved in, I asked the kids what color they'd like and they said gold, and bright yellow was the closest thing I could find.

A photo with my boys from Mother's Day 2020, months before my breast cancer diagnosis.Rebecca Dube

I wanted to make things magical for them. I painted walls and made up stories at bedtime. I snuck into their room to replace lost teeth with golden dollar coins, long after they could have possibly believed in the tooth fairy. I ate the cookies they left out for Santa, and nibbled on the carrots for Rudolph. I once heard a parenting mantra that I adopted as my own: Never let your storm rain on your children.

I shielded them. But I couldn't protect them from the cancer that was already inside my body. The storm was coming.

My double mastectomy went well. But I still felt terrible afterwards. Nerve pain wrapped around my chest, like a permanent bear hug made of barbed wire and fire ants. (Not everyone has nerve pain after surgery; I was just special, I guess.) Moving made it worse. Heavy narcotics made it better but, of course, they also knocked me out.

I couldn't protect them from the cancer that was already inside my body. The storm was coming."

I worried about everything: Who would get the kids out of bed, and fed, and wearing somewhat clean clothes (my standards aren't THAT high), and out the door to school on time? Who would plan meals, make sure we had healthy snacks at home, keep track of birthday parties and play dates? Who would put them to sleep at night in their bunk bed, and who would be there when my youngest insisted he needed "mommy cuddles" to fall asleep?

My husband did all those things, and a million other things so that I could rest and heal and not have to worry.

Did that stop me from worrying? Absolutely not.

Before cancer, I measured myself by what I did. I made breakfasts and kissed cheeks and made sure everyone had clean socks. My kids saw me happy most of the time, often tired, sometimes mad, sometimes sad, but I never let them see me as weak. They needed to know that I was stronger than any bad thing that could happen, that I would protect them. Then came cancer. And there's no such thing as short-term disability leave from being a mom.

My boys didn't mind trading Saturday morning pancakes for resting in bed.Rebecca Dube

Who was I if I couldn't do things for my kids?

I tried. I remember being so proud of myself for taking my youngest out to play in the snow after a big storm. Looking back on the photos, I see the joy in both our eyes, but also the strain in my smile. It was really hard.

One weekend morning after my surgery, I was lying in bed acutely aware of what I couldn't do. I couldn't make chocolate chip pancakes, my Saturday specialty. I couldn't cheer on my oldest at his baseball game, or take my youngest to a birthday party later that day.

They didn't need anything from me. They just wanted to be with me."

Then the door cracked open. My youngest tiptoed in, followed by the dog. Both jumped into bed, the dog curling up by my feet and my youngest propping himself on a pillow to play Roblox. A few minutes later, my oldest wandered in, smiled, and crawled into bed too. Using the dog as a headrest, he played a game on his phone.

We didn't talk. We didn't have to. They didn't want to know where their socks were, or when I was going to make pancakes. I might have dozed off for a little bit. They didn’t mind. They didn't need anything from me. They just wanted to be with me.

My breast cancer diagnosis helped me realize I don't have to do all the things, all the time.Rebecca Dube

They wanted their mom — and they didn’t care what I could do for them, or how strong I was or how much hair or energy I had. Heck, they didn’t care how many breasts I had. (Zero, at the time.)

I was still me, and that’s all they wanted.

My storm rained on all of us, I see that now. After chemo and radiation, I'm back on the road to normal and back in the role of Mom, Chief Household Officer. But things are different.

Now I know that I don’t need to make things magical. I don’t need to be the strongest, to do all the things, or to be their umbrella. I just need to be. That was enough. It's still enough. That’s the magic.

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