When Giving Up Is Not An Option - How The Love Of My Children Brought Me Through My Cancer Diagnosis
The day that my doctor told me that I could die in as little as 3 months is a day that I will never recover from. It's the day that my heart broke in a way that I've never felt before, and something 3 years later that I still can't put into words. Not because I was angry that no one had seen the cancer spread to my lungs while I was undergoing treatment just a couple of months prior, not because of the horrendous chemotherapy and the way that it tortures my body, but because it meant leaving my children behind. The devastation was insurmountable. According to him, I only had 2,160 minutes with my sweet, young children. My cries were so hysterical, you could easily hear me wail across the entire hospital. I opened my mouth to speak so many times in the minutes following the news I was given, but I couldn't utter a word. All I saw was their faces and their lives flash before me. They didn't deserve this. They're all in Elementary School, their lives have barely even started, and now they're going to lose their mother. Not only are they everything to me, but I am everything to them. I have taken care of them single handedly with minimal support for their entire life. There was no one on this Earth capable of caring for them the way I do or loving them have as much as I do. I'm no perfect mother, but I came from an immensely broken home and have raised them unwilling to continue any patterns of the systemic dysfunction that my family consisted of.
I've never wanted my children to experience trauma. The traumatic experiences that I have endured in my life were more than enough for us all. My mission as a mother has been to create a life for my children that they didn't have to recover from. I've never sheltered them either. Maybe it's the Taurus in me, but I've always been incessantly stubborn. If there was a lesson to be learned, you can trust that I was going to learn it the hardest way humanly possible. I know that at some point in their life it's inevitable that they would make mistakes, but the more that I could prevent with my transparency of my life, I feel like they'd be better off. I knew this news would absolutely crush them. How do you tell your 3 children that you're going to die? They were 9, 10 and 11 at the time. Babies. I didn't even have time to wrap my head around the news I was given cause I had to go straight to after school and pick them up for the day. They knew I was having a scan that day, and they’d obviously asked how it went, but we weren't stressed about it. The news of election night the day before "trumped" whatever we were thinking about the scan. After all, My Doctor downplayed my cancer when I got it initially. It was stage 2, caught relatively early, he sentenced me to radiation and chemo for 3 months and basically said bada bing bada boom, we'd be good to go. Honestly, I didn't take it that seriously because of how confident he was in eradicating it. That's what made this news sting even more, to some extent I felt duped. How do you explain something to a child that you didn't even understand? This wasn't something I could google my way out of like most things they asked, it was literally a matter of life and death.
On my way to get them, I started making the most gut wrenching calls I've ever had to make. There is NOTHING that can prepare a parent in having to ask someone to take care of their kids because they're facing death. Not to mention, everyone I knew had kids of their own and/or weren't in the position to take on 3 more lives, including their father. My mother had struggled with addition for the entirety of my life, so I didn't believe that she'd be consistent enough, and I also feared that losing me would send her over the edge. I had no other family. The more I thought about making these arrangements and leaving them is the moment that my life really shifted. I realized that since I didn't have any viable options, the only option I had was to fight. To fight from the depths of my soul and with all my heart. I knew in that moment that this cancer was not going to defeat me. I didn't have a plan, but I knew that death could not be the outcome. I was not only their mother, but I was just 32 years old, and had so much life to live. I had so much to teach my kids, so much growing to witness.
At times it became hard to keep fueling that fire. My love for them got me through a lot of tough days, but when you're looking at the statistics of a 15% survival rate, hearing the words "palliative care" left and right and struggling to find the right treatment plan within the 3 months you have left, maintaining a grip on your emotions so you can help 3 little people understand theirs, it can weigh you down. My kids were looking to me for glimmers of hope, while I was seeking hope from my Doctors to no avail. I wanted to find the best treatment plan possible, but I REALLY didn't want to do chemo. Everyone I spoke to regarding the chemo cocktail regimen they were going to put me on essentially was described at something that would make me wish I was dead with the severity of the side effects. I'd lose my hair right away, likely have a colostomy bag in no time, horrible pain and so on. In essence, the next few months were going to be complete shit, but they would do their best to keep alive during that time.
I got very serious about my research at this time. I investigated various protocols, like immunotherapy, vitamin c therapy, cannabis oil, apricot seeds, baking soda. You name it, I either heard of it or probably tried it. At one point I was taking almost 30 supplements a day. If it had any cancer killing properties whatsoever, I was doing it. Though I felt fine during the weeks I was researching methods to kill this cancer, I didn't feel confident enough to heal holistically alone. I met with a new Doctor at a new Hospital, and she gave me the only thing that I needed, hope. Not false hope, she just believed in me, understood that I couldn't leave my kids and wanted to help. That's when I made the choice to do chemo and my own plan. My logic was if the drugs are going to kill my cancer cells, let's repair and strengthen the good cells that I have so there would be no way that cancer could survive. I finally felt good about this plan, shared it with my kids and we began our quest to get rid of cancer for the second time.
I'd just started a new job 10 days prior to my diagnosis. I’d been let go from my previous job while I was out on medical leave for 3 months and forced to clean houses or do odds jobs to pay the bills until I could find something else. I barely had the energy to walk up a step, yet having to do laborious work to make ends meet. This made me even more ecstatic have gotten this new job. Not only was it the University at the center of the College town I live in, working there had always been a goal of mine. I genuinely thought for once, things were falling into place for me, but much like the majority of my life, nothing was easy. I hated having to tell my new supervisor that I had to take on treatment. I hadn't accrued any PTO and didn't even qualify for FMLA yet and I'd just started. I told her that I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I will be at work every day no matter how I am feeling, and I essentially did just that. I missed a few days here and there during treatment, but I tried to time my tri weekly chemo's so that I would be feeling the worst over the weekend. This was up until my body had a reaction to one of the chemo’s I was on and I went into anaphylactic shock. Consequently, I had to have chemotherapy given to me over a 24-hour hospital stay so that they could manage my response. I would take the day off to be admitted, and as soon as treatment concluded, I'd head to work. Most people thought I was certifiably insane, but when you're a single mother, you have some sort of magic power super strength that gives you the ability to get through the most challenging situations.
Oddly enough, the more I pushed myself to do, the more I was able to accomplish. The more that I believed I would beat this, the better I was doing. Who knew the mind could be so incredibly powerful. The more I fueled my body with proper nutrition, positive affirmations and mobility, the less I felt the need to succumb to the pain and fatigue. I hadn't done this the first go around. I went to treatment, slept, stayed sick, and repeat. I didn't really have much of a choice this time though. I had some support, but nowhere near what I needed. Some did what they could when they could, but they had lives of their own, and I had to understand that. On top of that, my romantic relationship had shifted, so I wasn’t only nursing myself back to good health but nursing my heartbreak. There were times when I didn't even know what hurt worse, the agonizing physical pain from the side effects, or the mental despair I felt as I neared the end of my relationship. Thankfully life thoroughly prepared me with the ability to self soothe. This was a blessing and a curse. I went to all my appointments alone, I stopped sharing what I was going through and no longer wanted help from anyone. I didn't want to be their burden. I pushed through as best as I could, the only way that I knew how. I manifested all the strength that I'd had to utilize over the years as I overcame situations in my childhood. Having to be a single mother, with no finances and at one point homeless, trying to make sure my kids always had food on the table when I hadn't a penny to my name, overcoming domestic violence situations and that’s just to name a few. I was a warrior before the cancer, and I'd be a warrior long after.
Warrior status and all, seeing my kids in pain put me in such a deep depression. We were all trying to be strong for each other at different points, and I hated what it was doing to them. One night, after we had said our good nights, they went to their rooms, and started my nightly oatmeal bath due the heinous skin irritation I had from the radiation. Each day I spent suppressing my emotions and pain so that I could work and take care of my kids, and I’d use the evening to release all my tears. When the bath stopped, I heard them in the room together, sobbing. One encouraging the other to be strong for mommy while they consoled each other. It felt godawful. I went and sat with them and we all cried together. I encouraged them to share their feelings and emotions and never try to hide them to protect mine. I wanted them to be allowed to feel their feelings and know that I would support them. I’d began this journey trying to maintain as much normalcy as I could so they wouldn't be as negatively affected, and I wasn't leaving enough room for us to express how this was making us feel as a family. From that point forward, that quickly changed. We communicated how we felt, supported one another and they were so so good to me. Breakfast in bed, sweet notes of encouragement, helping to make sure the house was clean. They even learned my juicing recipes and helped me stay on my nutrition path.
Then it happened. The moment that I'd been waiting for during the worst months of my life, the moment that I’d worked tirelessly for. The moment I’d sacrificed my mind, body and spirit to and was taken to depths I didn't think was possible. The moment my kids and I prayed for as we all grew closer to faith. The moment I was told would never ever happen. Remission. From 3 months to live with a 15% 5-year survival statistic with no cure. Remission. The amount of joy that I feel circulating my entire being is indescribable. It's the highest form of euphoria that I've ever experienced. It's also frightening. I was able to beat the odds, but I need to make sure that I stay in this place forever. I'm not going to lie and say remission is easy, it's just a different battle. You transition from one fight to another; fighting to kill the cancer and then fighting to make sure the cancer never returns. You can be overcome with anxiety, become the biggest hypochondriac known to man, and at times it can be very isolating when people don't understand. Just because you're no longer treating the disease, doesn't mean cancer is just "over". Life is forever changed, for better and worse. Scan days are the highest form of anxiety that I’ve ever encountered. I have to give everything I consume a second or third thought, and it’s taken me awhile to get to feel like my old self after struggling with image issues from loss of all hair, including facial, weight gain/loss, skin issues, not having the stamina you once had, and the list goes on. I’d do it all over again, and give my left limb in a heartbeat, if it meant being with my kids.
Though this journey has incredibly grueling, and it’s taken me to lows that I didn’t even know existed, cancer has fundamentally changed my life and even saved it. I’ve kicked bad habits, changed my diet dramatically, I’m conscious about everything that I consume from food to bad energy. I know what relationships to nurture and who my friends are, and I understand that letting people go really encourages growth. I learned that you must advocate for yourself, no one knows everything. Listen to and understand your body, the moment you feel like something isn’t right now matter how silly it seems, check it out. Early detection can help save your life. I want to help break the unnecessary stigma that is associated with cervical cancer. Cancer or not, life is incredibly short, and you must cherish every single day. I believe that everything you go through prepares you for each stage in your life. I’m excited for life 2.0, over the moon that I get to spend everyday with the 3 pieces of my heart that make it whole, and I know without a doubt that the best is yet to come.
By Aisha McClellan
Thank you for sharing your story Alisha. You sound like an amazing mom and warrior.