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Of joy and chemo: I’m a mom. With cancer. Now what?

The author, her new haircut and her daughter on a pre-chemo family getaway in the Shenandoah Valley. (David Larimer)
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When I got most of my hair cut off recently, friends, co-workers and neighbors commented and complimented, but no one asked why.

I’m not sure why I thought they would. The question has a whiff of judgment. But I wanted them to, because then I wouldn’t need to find a way to introduce the topic: I was just diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The kind of chemo I need to have is the kind that almost definitely makes you lose your hair. I thought it’d be easier to have smaller piles of hair on my pillow and in my shower drain.

I wasn’t sold on the haircut at first, and my 13-month-old daughter didn’t appear to be either. The day I came home with the new look, she seemed unsure that I was the right person.

Fair enough. I’m not totally sure either. I’m not sure I’m the person who can handle being the mother of a toddler and chemo. I’m not sure I can be a reasonably good wife and mother (whatever that means) while dealing with this.

I know that, for a mom with cancer, I have it relatively easy. Hodgkin’s is curable. There’s a decent chance I will have six months of chemo and then
I’m done. I’m not being given months to live. Surgery and radiation are unlikely. I have a supportive husband, good insurance, a job at a wonderful company, and friends and family who are happy to help with my daughter or the dog. Many people have it much worse.

But it still sucks. I might be on the lucky side for a cancer patient, but I’m a 33-year-old mom who has to deal with this major medical issue.

A little background: My only symptom has been itching. A lot of it. For months. I felt silly going to the doctor about it, and then I felt silly for going to get the chest X-ray she ordered. But then the technician took the X-ray and then told me to wait for the radiologist. There was no way that was a good sign. A CT scan followed. There was a mass in my chest.

It could be a lot of things, most of which fell into the category of “crappy but could be worse.” I had a procedure to get some of the tissue for biopsy, and after another weekend of waiting, I received the diagnosis of Hodgkin’s, a cancer of the immune system.

Having a diagnosis is better than having an unnamed mass in your chest. The latter is more likely to make you stare at the ceiling at night and think about what you’d do if they told you you had six months to live.

But no one told me that.

And so I count the ways in which I’m lucky. I haven’t had time to wallow over this diagnosis or feel sorry for myself. As bad as I feel that Matilda got stuck with a mom who has cancer, it’s nice to have someone else’s needs and emotions come first — and Matilda has plenty of both. Since the discovery of the mass in my chest, what I’ve been most struck with is how much joy she has. Her joy at my arrival home from work, at reading a book (for the 500th time), at eating a new food, lift up my mood and make the days not just bearable but enjoyable.

And so here I am. Writing can be therapeutic, and selfishly I’m hoping to find answers from parents who’ve been here. I will use this as an excuse to call experts to get tips on on how to deal, what to tell kids at different ages, how to learn to ask for help when you need it. I’d like to explore the joy and stress. I’d like to know when, or if, I get to be selfish. I’d like to know what to expect when they start pumping these drugs into me.

Been there? There now? Have things you want to see me tackle? E-mail me at or leave a comment below.

Rupar is a Washington Post mobile product editor.

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