Beyond Isolation & Guilt: How I Found Strength As a Mother Post Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis can shake up your world as a parent and make you rethink a lot of things.

5 min read
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In May 2022, when I woke up from my thyroidectomy surgery, I was determined to go home and resume my normal life. It was my mom’s birthday, we had ordered cake. But there was going to be no celebration that day. There was going to be no celebration for a while.

I woke up to a drain connected to my throat and neck, an oxygen mask and a text message from my sister that said: “You have papillary thyroid carcinoma. They’ve removed your thyroid gland, the parathyroid gland, and nearly 14 lymph nodes.”

I wasn’t able to speak immediately but my sister sensed that I was numb.

This was something I had been avoiding for a while, the diagnosis that I was a cancer patient.

While it has taken a while for me to accept my diagnosis, nearly a year since my treatment now, what I did discover is that cancer can change you as a person, as a parent, and teach you re-parenting in ways more than one.


The Uncertainty & Guilt

One of the biggest things about being a cancer patient is that you never know what to expect. Doctors will try to dish out hope in all shapes and sizes. They try to provide moral support and make you feel that you’re strong enough to fight.

You may feel with each course of treatment that the finish line is in sight but then, it may seem further away at the next doctor’s appointment.

Right from the first sonography to the radioactive iodine therapy (RAI Therapy), uncertainty was there throughout.

Multiple rounds of tests, check-ups, consultation rounds kept me and my husband going to different hospitals, meeting doctors, figuring out when all of this would end – and this translated into guilt about not getting to spend enough time with my daughter.

She was left to the care of nannies, maids, grandparents – it was the best we could do.

But I wasn’t there and what was worse, I didn’t know when I would really be able to be there with her.


Followed By Loneliness & Isolation

When the biopsy report came back, I discovered that it was Stage III of papillary thyroid carcinoma and that the toughest part of the treatment process was yet to come – the Radioactive Iodine Treatment or RAI Therapy, as they call it.

While I had been in and out of hospitals initially, and had been admitted for 3-4 days for my surgery, the RAI therapy involved intense levels of isolation; somewhat similar to that of COVID-19, worse in fact as there would be side-effects that the patient would have to deal with on their own.

In RAI Therapy, one cannot come into contact with anyone at all in any form. You have to dispose of anything you take in with you, in your isolation zone/bubble.

The isolation typically lasts for 7-10 days but in my case, since I had a child at home, that too, a toddler, my isolation would be for a fortnight or more, the doctor said.

This made matters worse for me, made me feel all the more guilty and broke me from the inside. “I need to be with her,” I pleaded with the doctor.

They promised they’d do all they can and I was hoping that my body would fight back soon and the iodine traces too would leave my system soon.


Five Parenting Lessons For A Lifetime

As a parent, the episode and the aftermath taught me things that I probably never would’ve learnt otherwise:

1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate:

Keep talking to your child whenever you can. Tell them what you think and feel. Tell them they’re going to be okay, and most importantly, you’re going to be okay. And ask them to trust you.

2. Be Honest With Your Emotions:

There’s no need to fake it and pretend that you’re happy. If you’re low, it’s alright. Children will be able to sense it anyway.

Tell them that you’re not feeling okay today and that you need rest or otherwise. There’s no need to push any agenda or push yourself to feel otherwise.

3. Treat Them As Equals:

Children are smarter than you think. When I came back from the hospital, my two-year-old knew something was not alright.

Everyone around was panicking that she would pull at the drain or bandages but my father said, “Talk to her, she will understand.” And she did.

Give them credit for being intelligent, sensitive and smart. They will become your biggest support system.

4. Don’t Go On A Guilt Trip:

It’s okay if you miss some occasions and aren’t able to be there all the time. Your child won’t hold a grudge against you or hate you. This episode will not change your relationship with them forever.

It’s a phase – you need to understand this, and make them understand it. So don’t feel guilty if you miss their first day of school like I did. You will have a lifetime to forge a strong bond with them.


5. Appreciate The Parent-Child Bond:

There’s nothing like the parent-child bond. I underestimated it but being a cancer patient, dealing with all those emotions made me realise the strength of being a mother. I was cared for by mothers – my own and otherwise.

And as a mother, I realised how the desire of wanting to be there for my daughter gave me the strength I needed. Your past, present, and future would all be at stake when you’re wheeled in for surgery, but the thought of your child is what will keep you going.

Even today, while I deal with the fears and post-traumatic stress of being a cancer patient, I always remember one thing – hope is what will keep me going, and that is drawn from my daughter.

The Reunion

I exercised, meditated, ate, and drank properly, hydrated myself adequately, and kept hoping to be reunited with my daughter sooner than later.

10-12 days into the isolation, I requested an iodine level check so as to know if I could be with my daughter again. Luckily for me, I was good to go and the isolation ended within that time-frame.

I came back home, brimming with joy. As my daughter and I hugged each other, I felt love filling my heart like never before. We danced together, and spent the entire evening with each other.

“I have a story to tell you,” I said to her. “Not today maybe, but someday, when you’re older.”

(Divya Naik is a Mumbai based psychotherapist, writer, and media professional. She is passionate about women's mental health, especially perinatal and post-natal mental health, and works closely with a community of therapists in the network to build on the same.)

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Topics:  Cancer   Parenting   cancer survivor 

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