Written by Jeanne Bryer
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Torie Croog
“Mum, I’ve got breast cancer.” No mother can be prepared to hear that. And I certainly wasn’t. But starting that moment, my whole life’s focus was to help my daughter, Sonya, get well.
Sonya had a primeval urge to see me immediately after her diagnosis—surprising her husband, as we had been distant for a while. But any distance between us, real or imagined, evaporated when she told me. I just wanted to protect her, to reclaim the closeness we previously enjoyed.
We sat over a cup of tea, warm and comforting, a calming ritual shared. I learned that Sonya had an aggressive type of breast cancer known as triple negative breast cancer. Triple negative breast cancer is sometimes linked to an inherited mutation in the BRCA gene, and I started to worry that this was the cause of Sonya’s cancer. I began to think about the potentially incalculable ramifications for the rest of the family. Was it from my side or her father’s? What if it was from my line? Was I guilty somehow?
To our relief, the DNA test results found no inherited BRCA gene mutation. We were then able to focus on how to live the healthiest, most joyful, stress-free life possible. I am sharing our experience with other mothers finding themselves in this unenviable situation in hope that it may help navigate the rocky road to recovery.
I had always prided myself on keeping my family healthy with organic foods and exercise. We really did the things most of us know we should to stay healthy. It was a shock to discover that we were not untouchable. It felt like I had to redefine who I was.
But ultimately, I realized that despite the reality check, Sonya’s breast cancer did not change Sonya or me on a fundamental level—we just found reserves of strength and resilience we did not know were there.
You will find them, too. It’s OK if it takes a bit of time—just be patient with yourself.
Do your research.
We found we could cope better with negative intrusive thoughts by researching avidly to increase our knowledge on cancer causes and cures and plan a route map to recovery. We were determined to control everything we could, and we found that research gave us agency.
For example, chemotherapy is the only option for triple negative breast cancer, and Sonya learned she would lose her hair within two weeks of starting treatment. So she decided to control her own hair journey: She had her hair cut into a bob, then a pixie style, and finally, she shaved her head completely.
Look at the situation from a new perspective.
Sonya dealt with the brutality of chemotherapy, facing sickness, exhaustion and loss of hair with determination, courage, and even creativity.
Chemotherapy is hideous, the paradox of poison that is also cure. To cope with the enormity of eight debilitating chemotherapy sessions, Sonya imagined a cake with eight slices. Each slice “eaten” left a smaller cake. Try using whatever visualizations are most comforting to you (whether they involve cake or not).
Find your mantra.
We took our lead from Martin Luther King, Jr. by taking “the first step in faith.” It helped us to remember that “you don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” This became our mantra. Use this one or find your own and repeat it as a meditation technique when things feel like they’re too much. It may sound woo-woo, but it will help suppress doubts and keep you positive.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself.
For a while, my emotions were numbed. Like a swan with legs paddling madly underneath, I seemed calm on the surface, even to myself.
But when I watched as Sonya almost died from reaction to a new drug, I felt I was sliding uncontrollably into an abyss. A visceral pain sliced through me as an anaphylactic shock nearly took her from us. Only prompt action by the oncology nurse saved her. The strain, which I barely acknowledged at the time, caught up with me a week later when I collapsed. A year-long battery of physical tests concluded that my body decided to “switch off” after months of acute stress.
This event taught me that mothers and other loved ones must look after themselves, too, and understand that doing so isn’t selfish; you can’t be helpful if you’re run down.
Try new things and let yourself enjoy them.
Recently, Sonya reminded me of the things we did together. I was ever watchful for anything that might help—a weekly organic vegetable box, Manuka honey, a Vogue magazine “wellness weekend” in London, books on stress relief, articles on cures, hopeful cancer trials, and even Reiki. (Oh, the Reiki—funny in retrospect. The practitioner’s home smelled of boiled cabbage, and her dog yapped incessantly. Hardly restful, but we had to try, and the laughter afterwards helped.)
By contrast, our weekly yoga sessions in a quiet, airy room with a beautiful girl called Kelly, provided gentle, health giving poses and meditations. We put our faith and trust in her, feeling totally relaxed as she covered us with a blanket at the end of our sessions. I recommend finding a gentle exercise regime that suits you both, and don’t be afraid to drop anything that doesn’t feel right. You will have your own shared pleasures and discover that you can enjoy life together and become closer than before. Celebrate it.
Lean on your community.
It warmed my heart to see Sonya’s friends rally around her and to see the kindness of work colleagues who gave their time with visits and presents. Flowers, chocolates, candles, and shared well-being methods became a vital part of a nurturing program that ditched meat, alcohol, and cigarettes and embraced organic foods, health giving juices, kefir, and fresh air. Shared time with loved ones are crucial contributions to recovery and should not be underestimated.
Overall: Nurture the people who are nurturing you. Appreciate the love in your life. And remember that you have overcome worse challenges. Don’t let cancer define you. It’s one of life’s many challenges, forcing you to reevaluate, but it will not change who you are.