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Mom's Back: Parenting After Cancer

Jen Singer and her boys Nick and Chris

What I didn't know during my family's spring break trip to Washington D.C., was that there was a tumor in my chest about the size of a softball. I didn't know it, but I had cancer.

What I did know was that I was coughing a lot and was tired. So tired. In the mornings, we'd tour the Smithsonian or visit the Spy Museum, and then after lunch, I had to lie down in the room while my husband watched our kids swim in the hotel pool.

It would be another six weeks before I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. It was another two years before I summoned the courage to ask my oncologist how long I'd have lived if I hadn't gotten treatments when I did.

"Two months," he said holding up two fingers, forever sullying the universal hand signal for peace. He explained that the tumor would've caused my lung to collapse or my heart to stop beating shortly before my kids would've started school that fall.

My kids. They were the first thing I thought of when the doctor told me that I had cancer. Images of them flashed before my eyes, all smiles and energy, dashing into the house for a moment before disappearing again into the woods on their boyhood adventures. Nick, then 10, adjusting his glasses and ignoring the sprinkling of dirt in his cropped blonde hair. Chris, 8, taking a moment to kick a stray soccer ball between two trees and shouting a triumphant, "Gooooooal!" with his hands raised in the air.

I ended up spending much of that June eight years ago on the oncology floor at the hospital, where almost every patient was twice my age. My first roommate, Katina, was dying. A Greek immigrant with a big family, she had visitors coming and going every day to say their goodbyes. I called it, "My Big Fat Greek Hospital Room."

Every night, my kids would call to tell me about their days, and then they'd play the piano for me. I'd set my phone on speaker, and the nurses, Katina and her family would listen to Nick play, "Für Elise," while I stifled sobs. Then Chris would play, "New York, New York," which, coincidentally, was where I was having treatments.

"It's up to you, New York, New York..."

When I finally got home, I couldn't be the mom my kids had relied on, the class mom/soccer coach with a minivan full of kids trying to out-burp each other (and me). In between outpatient chemotherapy treatments, I slept a lot and watched back-to-back episodes of "What Not to Wear," grateful for the moment in every episode when the woman who'd lost her sense of self got a second chance at happiness thanks to some pretty outfits and a haircut.

I wanted it to be that simple for me. And I wanted my hair back.

But it was hard—so hard—on us. Although family, friends and neighbors stepped up to help in tremendously generous ways, cooking for us and carpooling the kids to swim team practice, they weren't Mom. And frankly, I wasn't Mom either, at least not in the way that reassured my kids that all was well and they were safe. How can kids feel safe when their mom nearly died?

A few weeks after school started that September, I had my last round of chemo and crossed my fingers that the worst was behind us. But a PET scan revealed that there was a birdseed-sized piece of tumor still in my chest. My doctor ordered five weeks of daily radiation treatments, and I set up my appointments for noon, so that I could be back in time to greet my kids at the school bus stop—a little bit of normal in an otherwise crappy time of our lives.

During my first treatment, the technician left me lying as still as possible and staring into the behemoth machine that was about to shoot radiation beams at me. Only then did I notice that Carole King was singing on the radio, "And it's too late, baby, now it's too late."

Is it too late? I wondered. If the radiation didn't work, I'd have to have a bone marrow transplant, a month-long ordeal in the hospital that would nearly destroy my immune system in order to build it back up again. It was a Hail Mary move that would take me away from my children. And what if that didn't work?

Along my daily commute to radiation treatments, I'd drive past a Christmas tree farm with rows of saplings growing inches a year.

"Please God," I'd pray. "Let me be here to chop one down with my kids." I just wanted to see my boys grow into men.

That's when the months of anything-but-normal started taking its toll on my children. One was affected psychologically. His fourth-grade teacher said he looked like he "carried the weight of the world" on his shoulders. The other took it physically, developing stomachaches and pneumonia. I stayed with him to hold his hand during a CT scan of his chest and belly. When the nurse offered me a lead apron to protect me from the radiation, I replied, "Lady, I have enough radiation in me to fire up your machine." But I wore it anyway.

A month later, we got the good news: I was in remission.

But life didn't suddenly return to normal, as though nothing had happened. I'd have quarterly PET scans to make sure the cancer hadn't returned. In between, we held our breath.

But slowly, my hair came back, and my energy, too. Soon, I was coaching soccer and holding burping contests in my minivan again. My kids' boyhood adventures continued behind the house, only then, I was strong enough to join them.

Mom was Mom again, yet forever changed. We all were.

This is where I'm supposed to "end happy," showing my lymphoma gratitude for teaching us what's truly important in life and swearing that we no longer sweat the small stuff. You know, claiming we stop to smell the roses and see rainbows and kiss puppies and all that. But cancer doesn't deserve my thanks. No, if you frighten my children, I'll kick your ass.

The truth is that cancer affected us all psychologically and physically, and in some ways, it still does. Because when Mom has cancer, the whole family has cancer.

My 10 year-old is now an 18 year-old—a grown man. And his little brother isn't so little; he's six feet tall—taller than the Christmas trees at the farm that I passed on my way to radiation are today.

This year, I have the privilege of spending another June at home with my boys before they head out on their own adventures without me for good. I'm still here, and for a little while longer, so they're here, too. And for that, I am truly grateful.

Jen Singer is a writer, mother of two and survivor of lymphoma. She started the blogs Momma Said and Parenting with Cancer, and she has written four books: "Stop Second-Guessing Yourself" for baby's first year, toddler years and preschool years and "You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either)."