My daughter Madison was only 2 when I was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2008. There is nothing positive about having this disease, but I always felt blessed that my daughter was so young when I was diagnosed, because I never had to fully detail for her just how serious my disease was, and how extensive my treatment plan had to be.
Fast forward to September 2017. It was almost a decade since the long weeks of being sick, consistently fatigued, and having no hair. I was looking forward to my 10-year anniversary of being cancer-free. I had so much to celebrate. I was 43 years old, married with three children, and living my life to the fullest. My mother, also a breast cancer survivor, was in good health, and both our certified public accounting firm and our nonprofit breast cancer awareness initiative, Praise Is the Cure, were thriving.
Then a persistent cough, which I thought was a remnant from a cold I couldn't shake, turned out to be a recurrence of the cancer. This time, it was stage 4 metastatic breast cancer that had spread to my lungs, which explained the coughing.
Immediately, I was back in the hospital for a procedure called pleurocentesis, in which the doctors removed fluid from my lungs. They inserted a chest tube for future fluid drainage and biopsied the tumors in my chest wall.
While sitting with me in the hospital, my husband asked, "What are we going to tell the kids?"
I replied without hesitation: "The truth."
But sharing the truth was going to be very different this time.
Based on my experiences with Madison, I knew that I could educate our younger children, who were 5 and 6, by reading books with them and showing them pictures to prepare them for what was coming.
I also knew that nothing would be more important than my attitude. If I remained positive and surrounded myself with positive people, my children would accept what was happening as their new normal. I knew they would feed off of my attitude and emotions as well as that of people around me.
Madison, I knew, would need more. She did not remember how tough and scary my first treatment plan was. In fact, for most of her life, Madison looked at breast cancer as a curable illness. The two women closest to her — me and my mother — were enjoying healthy, normal lives after surviving aggressive forms of breast cancer.
Now, at 12, she was old enough to understand much more than she could the last time. Still, I knew this new diagnosis would be both scary and confusing, violating everything she had been taught about breast cancer. Madison is a quiet, perceptive girl, sensitive to the needs of others. I worried she wouldn't tell me her fears because she wouldn't want me to worry. So we found a counselor for her to talk to, and we think it has helped her.
Though of course I knew cancer could recur, I chose to see it as Madison did — as a thing of the past. I never imagined I would have to navigate myself and my family through this again.
Things were moving so fast. I not only had to figure out how I was going to deal with this news, but I had to keep the feelings of my children in the forefront of all my decisions.
It's hard enough being a mom when everyone is healthy, but when you throw a serious illness into the equation, it is downright overwhelming and scary. There is no manual on how to handle your children at a time like this, and believe me, it is no easier the second time around.
All children are different, all parents are different, all cancers are different. And though I had wonderful support from family and friends, the journey I was about to take was mine alone.
All I could do was what I thought my children needed.
I have always been honest and open with my children, and cancer was not going to change that.
I never wanted them to hear about my treatment plan from someone else, and I wanted them to be comfortable with asking me questions. I made sure when I spoke to them that I remained calm and non-dramatic. Sometimes, after testing that required intravenous contrast dyes, I would keep the bandages on the punctures long after I needed to, just to get my children talking. They would ask what happened, and it gave me an opening to share what I had been through that day.
I also involved my children as much as I could in my treatment process. When I realized I was going to lose my hair, I asked my children if they wanted to have a "cut off Mommy's hair party."
The last time I lost my hair, I was in tears. This time, thanks to my children, could not have been more different.
They giggled and laughed the whole time, helping us lighten a hard task and take control of a situation that was definitely out of control. My children could say they cut my hair off before the chemotherapy made it fall out.
I couldn't control when I would and would not be strong enough to attend my children's many activities. So I never made promises I might not keep. But whenever I could manage it, I was there, just as I always had been before cancer.
The diagnosis of cancer is hard. I always say it affects not only the patient but the family as a whole. When looking back at what I have gone through, I can honestly say I would not have made it this far without my family. I used them as a source of strength on the days I thought I just would not make it. One day, I hope my children can use me and this journey as a source of strength to get through their hard times as well.
Kerri Conner Matchett, who lives in Jenkintown with her family, is the author of "My Mommy Has Cancer But She Is OK!" a book she wrote to help children cope. Kerri is co-founder with her mother, Anita T. Conner, of Praise Is the Cure, a nonprofit initiative whose mission is to eliminate disparities among black women by providing education, access to breast health screenings and treatments, and support services for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their families. Their annual Week of Hope, Health and Healing is Sept. 30 through Oct. 7, and will feature events for survivors and their families. Get the full schedule and ticket information at http://praiseisthecure.org/