Coffee with Komen – Breast Cancer & Motherhood
By Meggan Ehret, breast cancer survivor and mom of four
It was March 2016 and, recently divorced (I initiated the divorce, so I cannot be cross about that), I bought a house (9 doors down from my ex-husband, everyone loves to giggle about that one but I thought it was best for the kids) and immediately began remodeling the first two floors of the house, changing the landscaping, and putting in a beautiful patio. It was only a short two weeks later that I received my breast cancer diagnosis. There was already tremendous change in the lives of my children and now they would have to cope with my diagnosis.
The road to recovery would include chemotherapy, radiation, double mastectomy (in separate surgeries), hysterectomy, oophorectomy (really? who came up with this word!), weeks of daily IV antibiotic treatments to kill the various infections that plagued me, and multiple reconstructive surgeries.
Even with such a diagnosis, however, good things come. For me, I grew even closer to my four children, two boys—13 and 12—and two girls—10 and 9. I could not really tell them much about the divorce. There was no soap opera aspect of the divorce (no affairs, nothing crazy), I simply fell out of love with my husband and I had lost myself somewhere along the way in the marriage. When it came to how to tell the kids about the divorce, I enlisted a therapist and she told me to use the following with the kids . . . ‘have you ever had a friend you thought was the bestest but then, over time, you simply did not want to maintain the friendship? Well, that is what happened between your dad and me.’ While I could think of no better alternative, the answer left something to be desired.
Breast cancer gave me the opportunity to speak very openly about something quite serious. The first time I told them about it, my ex-husband joined the conversation as we thought it was important to show solidarity to the kids. As the news sunk in over the coming days, they asked several questions and I always answered honestly. If I was scared, I told them I was scared. I told them I would fight as hard as I could to beat this disease but I was also not afraid to die.
In my new house, the kids all sleep in a cold dorm (a large room with many beds). We would end our evenings discussing our days—the goods and bads, what we learned, what we could have done better, what we did well, how we helped others, and just anything on their minds. One evening, I told them my boss asked me to avoid overusing the word “breast” in my emails to my colleagues about my breast cancer. I told the kids how strange I found that as no one says “ball cancer”, we say testicle cancer. I thought “boob cancer” sounded weird. In response, my 12-year-old son asked that we always use the word “breast” as he simply does not like the word “boob.” He made us all chuckle.
I found the cancer in my left breast when my right breast had nonlactating mastitis and cellulitis. My doctor insisted I have a mammogram (as I have breast cancer in my family, I had already had one mammogram). I had the mammogram and the right breast looked great but they noticed some granules in my left breast. Turned out those granules were evidence of further spreading of cancer that had basically taken over my left breast and went in and through multiple lymphoids.
As soon as they put the port in, my right breast got infected again, which prompted nine days of daily IV antibiotic treatments. I got the sense my kids did not understand what it meant to receive IV antibiotics, despite my explanations, so I took my oldest son with me one day. You could see the stress lift from his face as he saw how “easy” it was. Indeed, he thought I was being operated on every day. I tasked him with the job of explaining the treatment to the other children so he took a video and showed everyone at dinner that evening.
That taught me a valuable lesson—sometimes their minds will imagine something far worse than it is, and seeing is believing. While the kids could not join me during chemo, I explained it looked much like the IV antibiotics treatment. When it was time for radiation, I brought each child to the hospital. The staff was incredible and showed them what the radiation was doing and let them touch and feel things. The more the kids understood and knew what was going on, the easier it seemed to be for them.
It took me some time to realize that your loved ones feel helpless when you have cancer, and the only thing they want to do is help but they are not sure how. This included my children. One evening, I felt exhausted and overwhelmed. The kids could tell I was not at my best and, of course, asked me how I was doing. I teared up a bit and explained that I was overwhelmed by the road ahead. “I have no doubt I can do it, but there is still a lot of fighting left and I’m already so tired.”
For the first time ever, I asked the kids to put themselves to bed and told them I simply could not stay awake any longer. They tucked me in and kissed me good night. I woke the next morning to four smiling faces eager for me to go downstairs. I was simply overwhelmed at what I saw. They had made placemats for each of us, set the table, decorated the kitchen, and made breakfast (and it was good!). My Joe made eggs, my Miles made sausage and bacon, my Ava made bagels, and my Emma made English muffins. This happened just after Halloween so they also served me a smoothie of sorts that was apparently all their remaining chocolate candy mixed with ice in the blender. The smoothie was gross but it was so the effort that mattered. Up until then, I had done my best not to allow my cancer to alter their lives, especially as they had already endured so much change with the divorce. My kids were so proud of themselves and I was so proud of them. They needed to help me. They will never know how very much they have helped me fight cancer.
I think I will conclude with my final favorite story about my kids. I was chaperoning a field trip for my oldest. I should have had no drains but, given my luck, I had an infection and they had to remove an implant and I still had a drain at the time of the field trip. Those drains can be hard to hide. During the field trip, I noticed a few kids looking at it. When we sat down for lunch, I looked at my son, pointed to my drain, and shrugged my shoulders. He nodded. I took this to mean I could explain what was going on, so I did. I explained I was diagnosed with breast cancer and they were catching me mid-reconstructive phase and I had no breasts. Their 13-year-old faces were priceless. They all looked at my son and he proudly said— “my mom talks about everything.” By the end of the day, the boys were asking if they could come over to our house to hang. While I am sure that is because of my sweet Miles, I like to think I had a little something to add.
Thank you, Miles, Joe, Ava, and Emma for your love and support. I would not want to imagine fighting this fight without you, my mother and father, my sister, and my many other friends and family.