It never occurred to me when I found a lump in my breast that it could be cancer. I ate healthily, I exercised regularly and I was 35 weeks pregnant – cue lots of jokes and eye rolling about how glamorous second pregnancies are – I was convinced it was a blocked milk duct.
Having enjoyed a delicious brunch at one of our favourite local cafes, I left my 2 year old with my mum while I sauntered off in the sunshine to Guy’s breast clinic in London. The first indication I got that it might not be as straight forward as I had anticipated was when I found out my appointment was with a surgeon, the second was when everyone in the room looked a bit concerned that I was on my own… but the penny didn’t really drop until the surgeon looked at me with such sympathy in his eyes and gently said “you have a little cancer… “
I still remember those exact words as I found myself using them to reassure myself and everyone else; that word “little” made it seem much less serious than it actually was. The first words I said in response were “what about my baby?”. The rest of the day is a blur of tests and tears.
As a counsellor and a mum already, I was incredibly aware of attachment, my greatest fear was that I wouldn’t have the same bond with my second baby. Having breastfed my first born successfully and enjoyed the intimacy and closeness that I felt had contributed greatly to establishing such a secure bond, I had been looking forward to having that same connection with my second son. Finding out that I wouldn’t be able to feed him myself was a huge blow.
In the end I negotiated hard with my oncology team to find a solution that satisfied their need for me to start treatment as soon as possible, and my need to experience breastfeeding my baby. I was induced at 37 weeks, Baby Robbie eventually got pulled out into the world on 23rd May 2013, and I was able to breastfeed him for 10 days before starting chemo.
Nothing could have prepared me for the intense fatigue that comes with a chemo regime and getting up in the night to bottle-feed a new born, and yet those nights together, just the two of us, reinforced my sense of purpose which I feel was critical to my recovery.
The support of my husband, my family and my friends – new and old - was amazing. During the times I was unable to be with them, I knew that my boys were being given the opportunity to establish meaningful, lasting attachments with their dad and grandparents, which enabled me to focus on my own health and recovery.
For other mums who may find themselves in a similar position with similar fears, I would like to offer some reassurance. Robbie and I have a beautiful bond, which I cherish every day. My fear however was not groundless, so I would like to look briefly at secure attachment and attunement, in the hope that other women concerned about bonding with their new born can reassure themselves that even at their lowest ebb they are still enough for their baby.
Secure attachment refers to the primary caregiver’s ability to be attuned and responsive to the baby’s needs, and how this impacts the baby’s resilience, confidence and trust in the world and relationships as they get older. Attunement refers to the emotional availability of the primary caregiver and the consistency of appropriate responses to the baby’s efforts to communicate.
The key concept I try to impress on all new mothers I work with is the famous paediatrician and psychoanalyst, Winnicott’s idea of the “good enough mother”, and particularly for women affected by cancer in pregnancy, letting go of the need for perfection and being able to ask for help is crucial.
The odd moments of feeling unable to respond to your baby’s needs yourself are not going to affect your attachment as long as his or her needs are attended to enough. The odd day away from you is not going to affect your ability to bond as long as you are present enough. Formula and food pouches are enough when they are offered with love and kindness. You may not be able to play everyday, but maybe reading a book or having a cuddle is enough for now?
As a counsellor I talk to my clients a lot about self-compassion and practical self-care. Looking back, going through chemo, surgery and radiotherapy was the ultimate self-care challenge!
The saying goes that you can’t pour from an empty cup, and one of the hardest challenges for every mother affected by cancer is to give themselves permission to be cared for, and care for themselves in order to be able to be there for others.
I am now almost 6 years cancer-free, and my children, Robbie 7 and Connor 9, are still my pride, joy and purpose. I wish that Mummy’s Star had been this well established in 2013… (in fact they were just setting up as I started my treatment); as supportive and loving as my friends and family were, I felt that no one else could possibly know what I was going through, and that was at times incredibly isolating and lonely. I couldn’t be more thrilled to have discovered them now, and hope that every pregnant woman diagnosed with cancer is able to access the support she needs to experience understanding, empathy and encouragement at every stage of her journey.
I am a professional counsellor, and mother of 2 boys with a particular interest in maternal and children’s mental health. I enjoy working with parents to help them establish a strong foundation for both their personal and their family’s mental health. I see individual clients privately, both in person and via webcam; work for a charity providing children’s counselling in schools, and I run mindfulness sessions with small groups in schools, helping children to build their self-esteem and resilience.
You can find out more about how I work on my website: www.catherine-nabbs.co.uk
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By Catherine Nabbs