I wasn’t worried about myself. I was worried about my four children. Not for care; I have a very capable husband and the children are all old enough to vote or are close. No, I panicked because my Covid-19 diagnosis brought back memories of when I was diagnosed with cancer.
I also learned that information over the phone. A routine mammogram at age 49 led to the discovery of a mass and a needle biopsy. For four days I waited for the results. Finally, just as I was about to leave the house to take my father-in-law to a doctor’s appointment, I saw the radiologist’s number pop up on my phone. We had a short, efficient conversation. He gave me the name and number of a breast surgeon and told me not to wait too long.
“So if someone asks if I have cancer, the answer is yes,” I said. “Right,” he replied. I hung up, took my in-laws to the meeting, and waited until I got home before calling my husband to tell him the news. All the while, my only thought was, what will this do to my family?
For the next few weeks, I was concerned about my health. After all the initial reassurances about catching the mass early and removing it with a successful surgery, clear margins and nothing in the lymph nodes, I got the results of my genomic testing back. Those results basically told me that, despite all the promising early signs, my tumor had an increased risk of recurrence. My first doctor put chemotherapy on the table; several weeks and tests later, my second doctor took it off.
At first I tried to inject some lightness into the difficult road ahead. I joked about the chic zippered leather folder that contained the treatment plan I was given, along with a water bottle, a tote bag, and a host of other breast center swag. But the six-week daily routine of going to the hospital, undressing, climbing on the table, and getting radiation started to wear me out. The horrible burn that comes with the treatment also stinks—far worse than the sunburn every kid got in the 1970s. And I will forever have the dozens of tiny tattoos that told the technicians that the radiation beams hit me in the right place.
Getting diagnosed with cancer and receiving treatment was, of course, difficult. But what was more difficult was thinking about what my cancer would mean for my children. They were younger then. My two little ones just started high school and the next oldest was a junior. My oldest was weeks away from applying to college. My only breakdown — publicly, anyway — over confronting the big “C” happened when she and I were on a school trip and had to fly home separately because the airline overbooked Chicago’s O’Hare’s flight back to New York’s LaGuardia. . In a vain attempt to persuade the ticket agent to let me travel with my daughter, I screamed, “I have cancer!” (It did not work.)
I’m not sure what I thought my diagnosis would do to my kids. Distract them from their schoolwork? Leaving them motherless during meals? Or maybe leave it motherless forever?
I’m sure what that kind of loss is like. My father died of a massive heart attack when he was 47, and I was 12. He was playing his weekly Sunday tennis match with my mother when he collapsed. She tried to perform CPR, but he was dead before the ambulance arrived. One day he was here, the next he wasn’t. I wrote a note on a piece of yellow legal paper and put it in the inside pocket of his suit while he was in the box. He left and I wanted him to take something from me.
As painful as my heartbreak was (and is) for my father, I had survived his loss. So why was I so worried that my kids might not survive if I wasn’t there?
The answer: I was afraid I couldn’t protect my children from their own fears and heartache. It turns out they knew a lot, even more than I did, thanks to the endless streaming of “Jane the Virgin.” If there was a chance I needed chemo, they knew all about the cold cap.
My children are strong and self-confident – three beautiful, well-tailored girls and a sweet, sweet boy. They have experienced divorce and remarriage and the merging of two families into one. And yet I didn’t want to scare them or worry them about more than who they are in love with or what outfit they should choose the next day.
I wanted to protect them, not hurt them. But life just doesn’t work that way. Try as hard as you can, you can’t protect your kids from everything.
Now I am three years past my diagnosis and treatment. I go for all my scans and tests. I take my medication. So far, so good. But in 2020 came Covid-19.
For almost two years we have all worked to protect and protect our children from this strange, strange disease. My family left New York City on March 16, 2020, just as it became a hot spot for the pandemic. For a few days we wore bandanas that we got from the local Five & Dime in our temporary city, a few weeks we washed fruit and groceries (I still do). We learned more quickly, we took social distancing, we wore masks, we stayed away for nine months and we did online school.
We all slept together. They were safe. I protected them. We made it work, eventually we saw some friends outside, moved back home and happily supported the kids’ return to school. We have our vaccines and our boosters.
And then I got Covid-19 — exactly what my family had feared. My husband and I went to our friends apartment for dinner where everyone was vaccinated three times. It was our first or second dinner in years at someone else’s house, drinking wine, talking politics, dawdling. We all felt so good to be back together.
Five days later, just after I left the hospital for a biennial breast exam, I got the news that those friends had tested positive. My heart sank. Four days later I also tested positive.
When I got the call with my Covid-19 results, I felt like I was being diagnosed with cancer again. Of course I knew it wasn’t the same. But I was afraid that getting sick would hurt my family.
We’re so lucky that my Covid-19 symptoms weren’t serious – I felt like I had a mild cold, a few sniffs, a cough or two. The worst part was that I was separated from my family. I was so looking forward to my two older girls coming home from college over the holidays. But instead we broke up. My husband, who somehow escaped the pathogens from the dinner party, took all four kids and left town — again. They created a new family group chat and I was not in it. My “Covid cation” is the first time I’ve been alone in two years. Since the pandemic started, we have had constant togetherness.
When the world comes crashing down, all you want to do is protect your children. Because that’s what parents do. They won’t let the danger through the front door – if they can help it.
Now it looks like the worst and is the best for us. It seems quite likely that my children will get Covid-19, if not from me, then from someone else, but it’s unlikely it will be serious. And they see I’m okay. Thanks to science, we can really cure diseases.
So perhaps the lesson is in a complicated, exhausting, frustrating, terrifying and horrific way: we will survive. We cannot protect our children from everything. That’s always true, and we’ve all had a masterclass on that over the past two Covid-filled years. But maybe we — I — should realize that that’s okay.
I survived the big “C” twice. Cancer and Covid-19. And my kids are okay.