Everything is different
‘The moment a child is born, the mother is also born, she never existed before the woman existed but the mother, never a mother is something absolutely new’
Everything is different. Everything has changed. The ground felt stable and then Boom! Upside down, inside out, back to front and knotted all over.
How can you care for a tiny human and have cancer? How can you support this living being while you are navigating cancer treatment?
The moment you find out you are pregnant and the moment you are given a cancer diagnosis are two of the most life changing events in anyones life. They are big, like the biggest sink hole, even bigger if you hear them within a few months of each other and
the vulnerability one can feel is enormous.
It is all new. Not necessarily bright and shiny new but scary, unknown new. Maybe both.
It can be overwhelming; all the new conversations, faces and experiences can feel like an assault on the senses.
As a postnatal doula who has survived four breast cancer diagnosis, one of which was diagnosed when I had a small baby, I know what those experiences can bring separately
and together, but as the percentage of women diagnosed with cancer during or after pregnancy rises, and the average age of women when diagnosed with cancers such as
breast cancer decreases, our needs as women, as well as mothers, shift gear.
Building your tribe
One of the first things we can do is build our Tribe. Becoming a mother can be challenging enough and leaning on friends and family in those early months for practical support can be hugely helpful. Having a cancer diagnosis on top of this makes it even more vital to create a bespoke team of people you trust, to have around you. These can be members of family, neighbours and friends, but it can also be helpful to bring in specific types of care such as;
specific cancer support nurses, which your medical team will most likely provide and/or suggest
a postnatal doula; someone who can come in as much or as little as you and your family choose, who can signpost to other types of specific postnatal support as well as help with light housework, cooking, laundry, holding the baby while mum rests and sleeps or showers, identify any mental health issues and who can generally nurture and nourish a new mother. Some postnatal doulas will specialise in different areas and some, like me, will specialise with new mothers affected by cancer
nannies, childminders or au pairs or someone who can share the weight of a full family routine for other children and be that ‘extra pair of hands’
lactation consultants and breast feeding specialists
therapists, both physical and emotional
counsellors and life coaches who can help find tools such as CBT methods to ease anxieties and other mental health concerns
holistic practitioners such as reflexologists, homeopaths, and reiki
physiotherapists, clinical massage and myofascial release specialists whose massage can help with scar tissue post c section and cancer surgeries. Obviously medical recommendation is advised
These are just ideas, but gathering those people who can encourage, signpost and advise in specific areas will benefit long term wellbeing and provide a wide coverage of counsel and support, all of which can boost and motivate on the not so great days.
If your ability to breastfeed is compromised due to your specific diagnosis, you may have had a little time to prepare, but otherwise, there are many options that can be explored. Colostrum harvesting can be very helpful and the ABM website has loads of information on this area. Milk banks are a service that screen, collect and process human breast milk for pre-term babies or mothers unable to supply sufficient breast milk. Pumping may also be suggested and if you want a little more freedom and to feel less like Daisy the cow; the Elvive pump is a remote pump that fits snugly in your bra and pumps the milk as you go about your day. It can be a more practical option if you are juggling treatment and drips etc.
This is an area where professional guidance is key, but getting sound advice for supplements to support your body through postpartum and cancer treatment is something that has helped me massively. Chemotherapy will take its toll on the gut and digestive system,
so talking to a specialised cancer nutritionist is advisable. After labour, a woman can also experience iron deficiency and some cancer medication can also affect bone health, as well as hormonal health. In order to support our gut bio, as well as our immunity and inflammation, supplements can be really helpful in getting more of a balance.
When friends offer to help with school runs or household jobs like cooking, it can be hard
to accept, especially if there are some areas you want to be able to do yourself BUT, they wouldn’t ask if they didn’t mean it. When I was diagnosed the third time, my daughter had just started nursery and within a few days of confirming my double mastectomy, some girlfriends had already drawn up a rota of doorstep meal deliveries and nursery runs. Whether it is food or logistics, walking the dog or someone driving you to the hospital, delegate! I am betting one of your mates will love a spreadsheet, so ask them to draw one up and you can fill it in together or use it as a template and discuss with your partner or family so you all know what is happening and when.
Just as every new mum will have her baby bag, every cancer patient needs a treatment bag and this can give Mary Poppins a run for her money!
Investing in a large rucksack or baby bag with lots of different compartments can be so helpful. There are a myriad of baby bags on the market but depending on your diagnosis, some can be harder to carry so make a short list of what you need to carry around and go from there.
Keeping baby and cancer things separate, can also feel important. Compartmentalising these areas of your life can feel helpful, especially with different hospital visits and appointments, but it has to work for you.
If you have a separate cancer bag, it can be really therapeutic to burn it when your treatment finishes too, so keep that in mind when choosing a budget!
Buying yourself a special notebook or specific journal and using it to record those early days of treatment and motherhood can also be really cathartic. Using it as a way off offloading, getting creative, doodling, sticking photos or inspiring quotes and pictures can be massively calming and help you work through any thoughts or anxieties that you may have, and a way of remembering any questions to ask the health visitor or your medical teams.
Purchasing a baby sling post birth is something I recommend to all my postnatal clients, regardless of health implications. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that wearing our babies can hugely help with bonding and connection, reducing crying, raising oxytocin levels, assisting with breastfeeding, promoting health benefits for premature babies like kangaroo care and provide hands free practical care for both mothers and partners. Many local towns will have a sling library where you can try out different slings with the guidance
of a sling consultant and you can hire them too. Boba do a wonderful stretchy and very comfortable fabric sling for newborn to 6 months.
There will be many friends and family who want to buy something for your baby and for you. If you are asked what would be helpful and the freezer is full to overflowing and the dog has been walked so much he hides when the doorbell rings, there are a few ideas that can be useful;
a baby sling (such as the Boba above)
vouchers for a postnatal doula from the Doula UK website
a reflexology session
a brightly coloured poncho. These are a ‘must have’ for any cancer treatment and new mum. Hormonal changes can affect body temperature so having something you can throw on or off is so useful. It can also be really helpful for modest breastfeeding
toxic free beauty products such as Jennifer Young specialise in cancer patients, respecting the sensitivity of their skin as well as babies.
Staying in Touch
With lockdown restrictions being what they are at the moment, technology has stepped up and there are many apps that can help families stay in touch, especially with new and baby members of the family. ‘Back Then’ is a new app where people you choose can get the app and see anything you post and comment on them. It also logs the age of your baby so you can look back at pictures for each stage and age.
Self care is not selfish
A new mother needs to be nourished and nurtured. Any patient needs the same, so it stands to reason that rest and low stress are vital while navigating these unsettling times.
So many women during cancer treatment, as well as the fourth trimester, feel they need to get back to ‘normal’ and household chores and family life.
Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and cancer drugs require a lot of adjustment and can be very taxing on energy levels. Coupled with the natural fatigue of having a new born baby, breastfeeding/feeding and sleepless nights, being kind to yourself and feeling supported and cared for, has never been more important.
My experiences will be different from yours and any woman reading this, but I feel privileged to be able to share these thoughts with you because I didn’t have that support and all I wanted was to connect with people in a similar position, who could guide me, normalise these feelings within the hurricane of uncertainty and vulnerability and offer practical, as well as emotional advice, a vague structure, a frame and something resembling firmer ground,
for me to navigate my way through.
Having a charity like Mummy’s Star to lean on at this time, is a gift. In the current mother culture, we can find it hard to accept help for various areas of our lives, but at this time, asking for support is vital for the long term mental health and wellbeing of Mum and all
the family. It takes a village and those foundations are game changing.
Sam Reynolds x
For more information, please visit mumma-baby-space-online.com or email Samspacesmail@gmail.com
You can also follow Sam on instagram at @Mummababy_Space, or on facebook @Mummababyspace