This post is part of our 'Looking Back To Go Forward' series, written by a mum called Rebecca. She was diagnosed with breast cancer while pregnant with her second child. Seven years after her diagnosis and treatment, she reflects on that time, how it affected her and some of the unexpected feelings and experiences it brought up.
Guilt is an emotion where we feel we have not behaved in accordance with our personal values. As a general rule I’m not one for guilt, so much so when I trained as a counsellor I had to buy a book on the subject to understand more about it. I did however have an overflowing bucket of guilt towards my children about having cancer and my perceived impact it had on them. I felt they deserved better than what I could offer them while I was treated for and recovered from cancer.
The moment I became a mother I experienced a ferocious protectiveness over my children and would have done anything to keep them safe. It was an intense feeling which I had not experienced about anything or anyone before. My job was to look after them physically and emotionally and be there for them no matter what. They are my world, they are my focus. I had done that job well until cancer came along.
Cancer caused powerful emotions and changes in my life from the moment I was diagnosed. The year’s treatment which followed after the initial diagnosis was long and laborious. Most days were a struggle and I just didn’t have anything physically or emotionally left to give to anyone else. My life quickly became came about getting through the day and having the next treatment. I was distracted constantly with fear about dying. My role as mother which I felt so strongly about faded into the background and a lingering, lapping guilt took its place.
I felt guilty about having cancer. I felt guilty about choosing to have chemo while I was pregnant. I felt guilty about possibly harming my baby by having treatment to save my life. I felt guilty about leaving my children while I had treatment. I felt guilty about not being the best mum I could be while I had days and weeks wiped out by the side effects of cancer. I felt guilty about not being fully available physically or emotionally to my children. Above all I felt guilty that I might die and leave my children. I felt guilty I might die before I had completed the job I had so passionately started. I felt guilty I might die before they had become competent and functioning adults.
I had no choice and to leave them while I had treatment but found it extremely difficult to leave them for any social reason, vowing the only reason we would ever be partied was through death. I wanted to be there for them constantly with a hope in some way I could repair the damage I felt I had caused by my physical and emotional absence. I would constantly plead in my mind, desperate to live. Could I just live until they were old enough to remember me. Could I just live until they finished primary school, secondary school and now until they reach 20.
Apart from the odd pet I have not spoilt my children with money but I have indulged them with my time and creating memories for them. We have done a lot of stuff! I would cram decades of activities into a year. We were constantly busy and every day was filled with experiences. It was exhausting fun. I have healed my guilt through the time I spent with them and the memories we created.
My guilt made me a better mum and I still work on that on a daily basis. I sort out disagreements we have. I’m there when they get up in the morning and I’m there when they get in from school. My guilt has created a need to sculpt independent children in case cancer forces me to leave unwillingly early. They were ordering their own ice creams by 3, doing their own ironing at 14 and washing at 16. I have never fought friendships issues for them but helped them to look at ways they can resolve issues for themselves. I have taught them to negotiate, compromise and be kind to others.
We talk about life values and goals and about making good choices. We also talk about death and cancer and how those events have impacted me and in turn them. I look back and feel guilty for the hours and day’s cancer engulfed my mind. I can’t change those hours and days but I can be a good mum today.
Did you feel guilty about anything while you had cancer? How did you resolve these feelings?