Well, hello Burlington! After spending summers in Vermont my entire life, and attending UVM, I always thought I would be a Burlington mom myself, but you know how life is. Things happen: grad school, meeting my life partner, finding the right job, marriage, kids. The best laid plans, right? I ended up being a Boston mom, which I love.
It just goes to show that you never know quite how your life will turn out, or what fate has in store for you.
I am thrilled to have been invited to write a guest post about the most recent unforeseen happening in my life: cancer. It still surprises me to have that word associated with me. At the time of my diagnosis last January, I was 38 and my daughters were ages six and a half and fifteen months. I was breastfeeding my youngest daughter and had been through three bouts of mastitis. I assumed the lump I felt in my left breast was another blocked milk duct either left over from my last bout or signaling yet another bout of mastitis to come. But something felt funny. I had a bad feeling about it.
When it didn’t go away, I made an appointment to see my PCP. My cousin, who was also breastfeeding, had just had a lump checked which turned out to be nothing so I assumed I’d have a similar outcome. My doctor was very reassuring and thought it was probably nothing. Until she felt it. You know those moments you have in life that become crystallized? When you can remember everything…the lighting, the smell of the room, the exact expression on someone’s face? This was one of those moments. Before she said anything, I knew. Something was wrong. She referred me the next day for a mammogram (my first ever) and a biopsy.
As I waited for the results I kept telling myself, this can’t be! I am too young and I have breastfed my children and there’s no breast cancer in our family. I tried to stay positive, but was very worried. My doctor called with the results while I was in my classroom teaching. I stepped into the hallway to take the call. Cancer. And just like that I was thrust into the world of oncology with all its terminology and protocols and regimens and side effects and specialists. Invasive ductal carcinoma, stage and grade unknown. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know what to say or what to ask. I don’t even remember how the call ended. I do remember sobbing in my supervisor’s office and wondering how my two daughters would fare being raised without their mother. How would they go through all the milestones on their journey to womanhood without me? Would my younger daughter, Sophie, even remember me?
And then I stopped. I just stopped. I actively decided that would not be how I faced this.
I have two little girls and a husband who need me. I will not die. Or more accurately, since I had no idea how this would develop, I will seek to live. I later learned that a positive attitude was essential in facing the multitudinous challenges before me, but cultivating that attitude was no easy task.
I decided to tell everyone about my cancer very early and I received amazing support from my family, friends and coworkers. My cousin, Heather, was invaluable in her support and rallied my friends and family, near and far, to help. My husband, John, kept my spirits up by making me laugh, even when I had tears in my eyes from the fear and frustration. After seemingly endless scans and biopsies and tests, I had a mastectomy in March. I began chemotherapy in April.
I have since completed two rounds of chemotherapy and am scheduled to finish my antibody therapy in May. My prognosis is good, and my doctors tell me I can look forward to many more years of birthdays, graduations and summers at Sunset Lake.
I learned so much during this process. There were countless acts of generosity small and large that made me focus on the positive. So many of our friends brought meals to our family. My older daughter, Olivia, organized a surprise “Walk for Mommy” at our neighborhood park and her friends, teachers and other parents from her school attended. Two friends travelled miles out of their way to drive my daughters to and from school and day care regularly so that their schedules would remain as consistent as this disease would allow. Several friends sent knitted hats and shawls and gifts made with love. Heather compiled a box of letters for me to bring with me as support during my chemotherapy infusions…amazing! Because of this, during my treatments, I never felt alone. Two friends organized a fundraiser for me and raised over $5,000 to help cover expenses. I was one of the honorees at a Pink Ball for young mothers with breast cancer and in addition to my family, friends and co-workers, my medical team from Dana-Farber attended! A friend who also underwent breast cancer treatment has a “silver lining scrapbook” to document all the positive aspects of her cancer treatment. She is also the one who took me wig shopping and answered the questions my older daughter wrote out on index cards to ask her. There are so many positive experiences if you choose to focus on them.
But, let me not give the misimpression that this experience has been easy.
Having your breast amputated is hard. Chemotherapy is hard. Being sick while working full time and raising children is hard. Going through chemically induced menopause at 38 is hard. Having your sweet, sensitive child ask you if you will die is hard. Weaning your breastfeeding baby earlier than expected in order to begin chemotherapy is hard. For me, being forced to wean my child was the most painful aspect of mothering during cancer. Life undergoing cancer treatment is extremely hard, but it’s better than the alternative.
After work today Sophie and I paid a visit to one of my chemo buddies, Sister Margaret, a nun I had the good fortune to meet because our treatments were scheduled at the same time. She currently is in a nursing home following a bad fall and some complications during her treatment. We hugged and laughed and made bald jokes.
She can do this. I can do this. Should you have to, you can do this too. You are stronger than you think.
Written by Jayme Rivas Robertson
Jayme Rivas Robertson is happy to be alive! She lives in Boston with her husband and two young daughters. When not exploring the art, culture, ethnic food and wildlife in and around Boston with her family, she is busy as lead teacher in the Early Childhood Center at The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, MA. Cancer is her nemesis. Her heart is in Vermont.
[…] a shell of a person always worrying about meetings, grading, late nights, my family, whatever! I worried about it all. After getting my husband on board, I decided to get professional help. I started […]
What a cool story! Not because of the cancer… that totally sucks. But because of your positive outlook and how much you have gained from it. What a precious photo of breastfeeding your daughter for the last time. I can’t imagine! What a flood of emotions. Sending my best to you and your family. You’re a superhero. I think your super power is fighting cancer!
Thanks so much for sharing your story Jayme. I had no idea of what you were going through since our time working together at TLC. You inspire me. Your positive outlook and your love for your children is uplifting. You, your children, and John are in my thoughts and will continue to be. Please give my best to John as it has been an age since I have seen him.
The very best,