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Metastatic Parenting by Emily Garnett

When I was first diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, I didn’t know where to turn. I was 32 years old, and my son had just turned two. We lived in a new town, knew no one, and felt unbelievably overwhelmed. Parenting a toddler is difficult under the best of circumstances, but the circumstances I found my family in were far worse than that. We often felt like we were drowning – drowning in the regular challenges of parenting, drowning in the regular challenges of advanced cancer, drowning in the unique challenges of dealing with both at the same time.

Now, I am nearly 20 months into my diagnosis, and my son is three and a half. In some ways, I find so much joy in the fact that I am still here, still able to parent, still able to function in many normal ways. I can take my little boy to the pool, to the park, and go on hikes, but I also struggle with immense physical and mental fatigue, and treatments continue to take a toll on me. On the other hand, when I think of all the life, all of the milestones that I will likely miss, I feel overwhelmed with anger and sadness. I struggle with the understanding that my son will likely grow up without a mother. Because of the networks I have created, the support systems I have forged, and the pieces of my legacy I have created, my son will be ok. He will have an incredible amount of love and support for his entire childhood and throughout his adulthood. He will have pieces of my life and my memory as ways to anchor his own memories of me, and of our lives together. As difficult as it feels to recognize, I am irreplaceable, but not essential to his upbringing.

So often, as mothers, we are told to enjoy every moment because our children grow up too fast. Too soon, we are out of the fresh, sleepless newborn days, navigating first teeth, first steps, and first days of school. Motherhood is a concurrent nostalgia for the opportunity to step back into the past, knowing what we know in the present, and the anticipation for the promises of futures unknown. But how do you parent knowing that the nostalgia you feel for the beautiful moments that have passed fall impossibly short compared to the nostalgia for the future moments you likely will never see? I struggle to reconcile the fact that my son will likely live a large part of his life without a mother. The guilt I feel over this is immeasurable, impossible, and heavier than any tangible object.

Many say that motherhood is the toughest job you’ll ever do, and there is so much truth in that statement. Navigating the growth and development of a human being entirely separate from you, but simultaneously so intimately tied to your person and so incredibly dependent on you, often leaves us feeling like a complete failure and like the best person in the world. As a mother living with metastatic breast cancer, I know that my struggles will only continue to grow, but I also know that the significance of memory, of legacy, and of commemoration exist far beyond the loss of physical structures, and will carry my legacy into the future, whatever it may hold.

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