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.
Three moms of young children share how breast cancer changed their lives.
Kim Jewett’s 6-year-old daughter had a simple request onenight.
“Mommy, can you tuck me into bed?” asked the girl.
“I’m sorry,” replied Jewett, weak from repeated chemotherapytreatments. “I’m just too sick and too tired.”
“Mommy, you’re always too tired,” her daughter said withpuppy-dog eyes. “You don’t tuck me into bed anymore.”
The Plainfield mom told her daughter to head toward bed whileshe tried to muster the strength to get off her recliner.
“OK, I’ll be there in a minute,” she told her.
After Jewett finally made her way to her daughter’s room, sheoverheard her little girl praying.
“Dear God ” the girl whispered. “Please give Mommy strength tofight breast cancer.”
Jewett fell to her knees, broke down into tears, and alsoprayed.
“Dear God ” Jewett pleaded. “Please give me the strength so my6-year-old daughter doesn’t have to pray for my survival.”
This took place in 2008 and, in time, both their prayers wereanswered. But not before Jewett, at 31, underwent a bilateralmastectomy with reconstruction and six months of chemotherapy. Allwhile caring for her daughter Kalli Bogard, now 11, and son, Tyler,who’s 9.
“I quickly realized after my diagnosis that I still need toraise my children,” says Jewett, now 36. “They still need me on adaily basis. It’s impossible to lose sight of this.”
Her children proved to be resilient through the ordeal, evenafter a promise she made to them couldn’t be fulfilled.
“I promised them no more cancer, but it turned out I lied,” saysJewett, who was diagnosed again in early 2012 with cancer in herlymph nodes.
Again she went through chemo treatments. Again she was tired and sick. But this time her children better understood.They rallied around her.
While some parents shelter their children from the scary worldof cancer, Jewett used the experience as an opportunity to educateher kids about life, love, and giving back to others.
“It’s the power of being thoughtful,” Jewett explains.
Together, they make blankets and deliver them to cancer patientsin local hospitals. As cancer survivors know, chemo treatmentstypically leave patients cold to the bone. The project is sosuccessful that her children’s school has adopted it as itscommunity service project.
“The experience can be empowering and inspiring for children,”says Jewett, who will be taking part in the Komen Chicago Race forthe Cure on Mother’s Day.
Her daughter already has been empowered and inspired.For arecent school project, Kalli was asked what she wants to be whenshe grows up.
“I would like to be a medical oncologist because my mom hadbreast cancer,” she wrote. “I want to help others like the doctorswho helped my mom beat it twice. And I would like to help otherkids not worry about their parents.”
Please, God …
When Jill Bettenhausen first learned she had breast cancer, soonafter her annual mammogram in early 2010, her son Gunnar was 7 andher daughter Sophia was 4.
“My initial reaction was paralyzing fear of dying too young andleaving my children without a mother,” says Bettenhausen, of TinleyPark, who was 45 at the time.
Her children reacted in entirely opposite fashions, as siblingsoften do. Her son couldn’t hide his fear of the future. Herdaughter couldn’t resist pointing out pink ribbons during familyoutings.
In the spring of that year, Bettenhausen had a doublemastectomy. But, due to the surgery, she avoided radiation andchemotherapy. While recovering from surgery, including additionalsurgeries for chest reconstruction, her mother-in-law stepped upfor the children.
“I still saw the children, but she met all their needs,”explains Bettenhausen, who missed only one of her son’s baseballgames through the entire ordeal.
During her healing process, as doctors educated her and shelearned more about the disease, her initial reaction to thediagnosis 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 herdaughter or drive the kids to their school or activities, but shecould ride along.
Her support team routinely came to the rescue, including herhusband who would pour milk, water and other drinks into smallercontainers so she could lift them. Family and friends took turnsdelivering home-cooked meals for weeks.
“That was a huge help to us,” she says. “All in all, we didgreat as a family.”
They also learned valuable lessons.
“I’ve learned to listen to my body, to not worry about keeping aspotless house, and to do something fun with the kids instead,”Bettenhausen says. “I’ve also learned that I want to help otherwomen affected by this disease, and to teach awareness and pushearly detection. Early detection saved my life and I’m sothankful.”
Today, Bettenhausen is cancer free, yet she’s still getting usedto her “new normal,” a common transition for survivors. Her cheststill feels uncomfortable, and she must take Tamoxifen for at leasttwo more years.
Over the past three years, her children, now 10 and 7, havelearned about giving back, specifically by raising money for breastcancer awareness.
“And for a cure,” adds Bettenhausen, whose mother also is abreast cancer survivor.
Both kids will make posters for their mom and her “PinkWarriors” team at the upcoming Avon Walk for Breast Cancer inJune.
“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.
The new normal
After her diagnosis four years ago, Kelley Watson knew what shedidn’t want to be labeled by her children’s friends.
“The cancer mom,” Watson recalls. “Ugh, I still hate the soundof it.”
The Oak Park woman is anything but that dire-straitsdescription, thanks in part to her two kids. Patrick Heyboer, then13, and Catherine Heyboer, 11 at that time, even helped their momresearch her treatment options.
“For that part of my life, they pretty much raised themselveswhile I dealt with my illness,” says Watson, now 53, a food andfitness guru who owns the Pilates Edge by Kelley studio in ForestPark.
Both kids awoke on their own for school that year, made theirlunches, and returned home to check on their mom. That summer, thetrio 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 theybecame closer to each other and more mature in a short time. It wasamazing to watch from my situation.”
Watson was “furious” when she learned she had a form of breastcancer called ductal carcinoma in situ, found in the lining of themilk ducts. “Not only was I already living a very healthylifestyle, but also because there was no family history of thisdisease,” she says, still somewhat shocked at the diagnosis.
After Watson underwent surgery and eight weeks of radiationtreatment, she experienced a wake-up call about her life, herlifestyle, and her future choices. The part-time model reallyclamped down on avoiding chemicals in her foods, drinks, householditems, 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 anew goal in mind.
“I want to be an example to other women with breast cancer thatyou can still be vibrant, beautiful and a nurturing mother,” shesays firmly.
“With our children’s help, and their love, we can take controlof our life and our destiny. I’m proof of that,” she says. “I feelbetter now than I did four years ago, before I was diagnosed. Iwant to be the new face of breast cancer survivors.”
Destiny under control