This simple yet simply terrifying diagnosis can feel like a family curse, a genetic time bomb or a looming death sentence to a woman of any age. But even more so to a mother of young children whose first thought and foremost priority is not about herself. It's about her children-their reaction, their future, their daily lives.
How will she wake them for school each morning while undergoing radiation treatment? How will she be able to tuck them in each night after a draining day of chemotherapy? How will she shower them with attention, if not affection, while battling for her very life?
Such scenarios are more common than ever these days with the rising numbers of younger women diagnosed with breast cancer, according to a new study. Published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it shows that advanced breast cancer in women ages 25 to 39 has risen roughly 2 percent each year since 1976. There's no definitive explanation as to why, nor a reversal in sight, experts theorize.
This age demographic is prime time for motherhood, meaning more moms than ever before are forced to juggle this deadly disease with their child-rearing duties.
How do they do it?
Chicago Parent talked with three moms, each diagnosed with breast cancer "at the absolute worst time of our lives," as one of them describes it. They may have lost their hair and their energy, but they never lost their hope, thanks to their children, they say. Here are their stories.You might also like:
When Jill Bettenhausen first learned she had breast cancer, soon after her annual mammogram in early 2010, her son Gunnar was 7 and her daughter Sophia was 4.
"My initial reaction was paralyzing fear of dying too young and leaving my children without a mother," says Bettenhausen, of Tinley Park, who was 45 at the time.
Her children reacted in entirely opposite fashions, as siblings often do. Her son couldn't hide his fear of the future. Her daughter couldn't resist pointing out pink ribbons during family outings.
In the spring of that year, Bettenhausen had a double mastectomy. But, due to the surgery, she avoided radiation and chemotherapy. While recovering from surgery, including additional surgeries for chest reconstruction, her mother-in-law stepped up for the children.
"I still saw the children, but she met all their needs," explains Bettenhausen, who missed only one of her son's baseball games through the entire ordeal.
During her healing process, as doctors educated her and she learned more about the disease, her initial reaction to the diagnosis started to change.
"I realized I could fight this and win," she says.
After this relatively common realization for many survivors, "life went on," Bettenhausen says. She couldn't pick up her daughter or drive the kids to their school or activities, but she could ride along.
Her support team routinely came to the rescue, including her husband who would pour milk, water and other drinks into smaller containers so she could lift them. Family and friends took turns delivering home-cooked meals for weeks.
"That was a huge help to us," she says. "All in all, we did great as a family."
They also learned valuable lessons.
"I've learned to listen to my body, to not worry about keeping a spotless house, and to do something fun with the kids instead," Bettenhausen says. "I've also learned that I want to help other women affected by this disease, and to teach awareness and push early detection. Early detection saved my life and I'm so thankful."
Today, Bettenhausen is cancer free, yet she's still getting used to her "new normal," a common transition for survivors. Her chest still feels uncomfortable, and she must take Tamoxifen for at least two more years.
Over the past three years, her children, now 10 and 7, have learned about giving back, specifically by raising money for breast cancer awareness.
"And for a cure," adds Bettenhausen, whose mother also is a breast cancer survivor.
Both kids will make posters for their mom and her "Pink Warriors" team at the upcoming Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in June.
"They realize I'm here today, but that I won't always be here, so we always share countless hugs and 'I love you's' every day," she says.