How I Survived the First Year of Motherhood With Cancer

Seventeen years ago, when my daughter was about 5 months old, I was diagnosed with a recurrence of lymphoma that I thought I had vanquished 9 years earlier. I was shocked and terrified. My husband and I spent that year getting me through surgeries and chemotherapy while trying to keep our daughter happy and healthy. 

The bright side is I learned some big life lessons along the way. And I am sharing them with you because they apply to all new moms and parents. I want to give my pain purpose and help you transition into motherhood and find your “right fit” as a new mom. No cancer diagnosis is required. 

You Can Break the “Rules” of Parenting & Motherhood 

In my situation, a lot of the typical parenting advice didn’t apply because I didn’t have the capacity to follow through on it. For survival’s sake, I needed to break some of the “rules” of parenting and motherhood. And if I can be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think I needed cancer as an excuse to do it. I could have done it anyway.

The rule I “broke” that still stands out for me was that one about letting your baby cry for x number of minutes when you put them down to sleep. I did not have the energy for the process of letting my daughter cry, checking on her at specific intervals, and then continuing the process multiple times until she figured out how to fall asleep on her own. I barely had the energy to put her in her bed just once. 

I can’t remember what the implied penalty for not following the rule was, but a certain grandma seemed to think it was something akin to ensuring my daughter would be destined for a life of crime. This was clearly an important practice for grandma. But, her experience as a mom was completely different than mine. She had a bunch of kids. I had one. She was healthy. I could barely get out of bed some days.

I eventually did what I wanted the way I wanted. I rocked that baby to sleep every night and then put her in bed after she was asleep. And, guess what? We survived! My daughter has been an amazing sleeper ever since. And I am proud to report she has a completely clean criminal record. 

Get the Help You Want or Need 

Due to my diminished energy and difficult chemo side effects, I needed a ton of help to keep the family alive, bathed, fed, and amused. I had to recognize that I could not do it all. I have a theory that delegating can be hard for new moms because we think that each task on its own is something we can accomplish. Or at least could before we were beholden to a baby’s schedule – or lack thereof. 

The problem is that when you add all these things up, it is a lot. In my case, the basics of everyday motherhood were impossible to do alone. My best unsolicited advice (although you are reading this article on your own accord so I guess that makes it solicited advice) is to delegate what you can. Sometimes the most important part of taking care of your health and your family is finding the extra support you need that gives you the space to do so. 

If a Part of Your Pre-Baby Life Is No Longer Working For You, You Might Need to Let It Go 

Sometimes a new baby (or an illness) can make certain aspects of your old life incompatible with your new life. This can show up professionally and personally. Professionally, it can become difficult to balance motherhood with the demands of your job. If you don’t have enough help, the right kind of support, or your circumstances are difficult to navigate. 

I initially went back to work full-time. I lasted a week because our first child care choice was a disaster. Then, I transitioned to part-time. And, once I was diagnosed, I went out on disability for over a year. I had to keep rolling with circumstances as they unfolded. 

On a personal level, my friendships shifted with the new baby and the illness. It was painful. But on the other hand, it was also positive because I met some awesome people who were aligned with where I was in my life. Any big change like having a baby or a cancer diagnosis can be a mixed bag of gain and loss. It’s hard. I want you to know that when you let something go that is no longer working for you, you make room for something else that is more aligned. 

Lean Into Your New Superpower of Bullsh*t Intolerance

It is important to note that from the moment your baby is born (or you get a challenging health diagnosis) you will experience the blessing of zero tolerance for anyone else’s BS. You will now only tolerate your baby’s BS. I am not going to go into the laws of physics that make this so, I’m not a physicist. But, suffice it to say that you now have a superpower. 

This power will impact other parts of your life regardless of how you reached your bullsh*t intolerance. You now have enhanced powers to say no to all of the things you don’t want to do or can’t make time for. 

I invite you to lean into this new superpower. It is tempting to spread yourself too thin. But, as a health coach, I will tell you that it is more important to tune into your priorities and act accordingly. Your newfound intolerance helps you set your priorities. And your boundaries. You’re welcome.

Listen to Your Intuition 

You will receive unsolicited advice. A lot. It is always meant to help you. But, sometimes it can really hurt you. As a health coach, I will tell you what you already know: no one knows what is best for you more than you

It might take a while to figure out what your right answer is. That’s totally fine! You might not land on the perfect model for soothing your baby the first time. Are they a bouncy seat, swing, or sling kind of baby? We don’t know yet! We just met! But I will say, I doubt that your mother-in-law knows more about this than you. You are the expert on your baby. Own it. Take what is helpful and let the rest fall away into oblivion.

Looking back on my daughter’s first year, I am amazed that we all survived. It wasn’t always pretty, but we did it. Together. I wish you all the best as you tune into what is right for you and let the rest go.

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