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:
After her diagnosis four years ago, Kelley Watson knew what she didn't want to be labeled by her children's friends.
"The cancer mom," Watson recalls. "Ugh, I still hate the sound of it."
The Oak Park woman is anything but that dire-straits description, thanks in part to her two kids. Patrick Heyboer, then 13, and Catherine Heyboer, 11 at that time, even helped their mom research her treatment options.
"For that part of my life, they pretty much raised themselves while I dealt with my illness," says Watson, now 53, a food and fitness guru who owns the Pilates Edge by Kelley studio in Forest Park.
Both kids awoke on their own for school that year, made their lunches, and returned home to check on their mom. That summer, the trio went on memory-making road trips together, either hiking, kayaking, or to the beach in Michigan.
"We became even closer during that time," Watson says. "And they became closer to each other and more mature in a short time. It was amazing to watch from my situation."
Watson was "furious" when she learned she had a form of breast cancer called ductal carcinoma in situ, found in the lining of the milk ducts. "Not only was I already living a very healthy lifestyle, but also because there was no family history of this disease," she says, still somewhat shocked at the diagnosis.
After Watson underwent surgery and eight weeks of radiation treatment, she experienced a wake-up call about her life, her lifestyle, and her future choices. The part-time model really clamped down on avoiding chemicals in her foods, drinks, household items, cleaning supplies, you name it.
"I became a label reading junkie, and my kids picked up on it, too," Watson says proudly.
Since then, she has rewritten the label of her own life with a new goal in mind.
"I want to be an example to other women with breast cancer that you can still be vibrant, beautiful and a nurturing mother," she says firmly.
"With our children's help, and their love, we can take control of our life and our destiny. I'm proof of that," she says. "I feel better now than I did four years ago, before I was diagnosed. I want to be the new face of breast cancer survivors."