Thanksgiving is usually a busy time, not only in my career-coaching business but also in my roles as a mom and primary household manager — making me more harried and less grateful than I should be. But last holiday season, that busy but normal life fell apart when my 12-year-old, Gillian, received a diagnosis of a rare bone cancer.
Just before holding our annual turkey dinner, I noticed Gillian was limping. Never one to complain, she explained that her knee still ached after a stumble while playing field hockey at the beginning of the school year.
“You should have told me it hurt!”
“I did! Don’t you remember?”
She probably had mentioned it to me, but I was preoccupied with work.
Our pediatrician sent us to an orthopedist, who ordered X-rays. That same December night, she called.
“Well, it’s not a fracture —” she said.
“What a relief!”
“It’s a tumor. The radiologist and I both agree you should meet our colleague. She has an opening first thing tomorrow. Her assistant is waiting for your call now.”
Glancing at the calendar, I exhaled, relieved I didn’t work on Fridays. Then, the weight of her words sank in. I panicked.
“Wait, should I be worried?”
“Let this doctor see your daughter. She’ll know if the tumor is benign or something else.”
The next morning, after examining Gillian, the orthopedic surgeon asked the nurse to escort her to the waiting room. Turning her attention to my husband, Kyle, and me, she put up the X-ray and told us that Gillian had osteosarcoma. We were stunned that fuzzy gray markings on film could reveal such a swift diagnosis. Responding to our disbelief, she gently described it as a “classic presentation” of the disease. Because Gillian needed treatment right away, she had made arrangements for us meet “your oncologist.”
I could feel tears in my eyes and see them in Kyle’s. But we both fought them off, knowing we would soon be reunited with Gillian.
Waiting for the next appointment, we realized it would be better if Gillian heard the news from us. As we told her what little we knew, she listened carefully but looked scared. She remained stoic as her new doctor warmly introduced herself and explained the standard treatment protocol: 18 rounds of inpatient chemotherapy over nine months. She posed perceptive questions and carefully considered the responses. But at the news she couldn’t return to school because her immune system would become too weak, Gillian finally broke down and cried. Watching her lose her poise, I could no longer suppress my anguish. Holding her, I wept, too.
Our family was thrust into the terrifying world of pediatric cancer. Kyle, older daughter, Allison, and I dropped everything to care for our sweet “baby girl.” For 71 nights, Kyle and I took turns sleeping on the hospital pullout sofa as Gillian received chemotherapy. Allison spent most evenings next to Gillian on the hospital bed showing her silly YouTube videos to distract her from her nausea.
During coaching calls, I immersed myself in my clients’ problems, forgetting my own worries. But when I hung up the phone, I felt like a fraud. Although I often stressed the importance of self-care to busy moms, I couldn’t manage daily showers. As I suggested time management tips, Gillian’s white blood cell count hijacked any attempt to control my calendar or to-do list.
I’d prided myself on providing my clients evidence-based solutions. But when I reached the section of a medical journal on osteosarcoma survival rates, stopped short. I couldn’t breathe. My daughter’s prognosis of 70 to 80 percent was certainly better than the 20 to 30 percent given to those whose cancer had spread. But it wasn’t the 100 percent I needed to see.
“Did you know this?” I asked Kyle, pointing to the numbers.
“Yeah.” He had completed a long review.
It was as though we made a pact that day. We never spoke of dreadful digits again, pushing them out of our minds. We steeled ourselves so we could take care of our family. I even began to welcome physical exhaustion. Falling asleep quickly meant my mind couldn’t linger on grim facts. On restless nights, Kyle held me as I cried myself to sleep.
What saved me were other busy mothers who taught me, the helper, to accept help. Without seeking my permission or asking, “What can I do?” they simply launched into action. Mothers of Gillian’s classmates organized a meal train so that we would have at least one homemade meal every week — usually with plenty of leftovers. Living in New York City, we didn’t own a car, so moms of Allison’s friends who did took turns driving us to the clinic. Parents of Gillian’s closest friends made sure their daughters spent time with her as often as they could.
One friend even found a baseball cap with glitter-covered cat ears to replace the many cat-ear headbands Gillian used to wear every day. Although she didn’t outwardly mourn the loss of her hair, she never let anyone see her without the cap. She did, however, allow Allison to count the few hairs she hadn’t yet lost or describe the condition of her scalp. Their unguarded sisterhood touched my numbed heart.
Another friend texted me every Thursday morning, “Can we come over tonight?” After work, she and her husband would bring their daughters, still clad in soccer uniforms. They insisted on ordering pizza and ignored the messy piles of mail and laundry. They filled us in on gossip or news we missed and reminded us what it was like to feel normal.
It was the mundane things we missed the most. Gillian craved the fresh strawberries her doctor forbade her to eat. Kyle pined for business travel. Allison just wanted more time to herself at home. I longed for those harried days of ignorance I couldn’t recognize as bliss.
Gillian finished chemo in early September. Despite her status change from patient to survivor, she is scheduled for frequent follow-up tests and clinic visits to monitor her health. She needs additional surgery and physical therapy for her leg to fully heal. Although these will blemish her attendance record, she was present on the first day of school.
As we prepare for this year’s festivities, we are certainly thankful for Gillian’s recovery and everyone who helped us along the way. But I’m also grateful our family can appreciate the ordinary. Happy not to be in the hospital, Gillian frequently hugs her pillows and comforter. I like seeing the empty spot in our entryway formerly occupied by our overnight totes. I feel a twinge of bittersweetness when I scold Allison for using her phone at the dinner table because she wants to show Gillian a mindless meme.
Most of all, our latest family obsession is watching Gillian’s hair grow back. We were fascinated to see how quickly her eyebrows return. If we’re not documenting the top of her head with photos, we delight in rubbing and caressing it. I imagine myself someday reminding her to comb tangled hair once again. And I am grateful.
Stacy Kim is a social scientist turned life coach at LifeJunctions.com.