Having cancer and young children: A mother's advice

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Having cancer and young children A mothers advice By Sandra Bishnoi.JPGBy Sandra Bishnoi

Sandra Bishnoi was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer with bone metastasis in January 2011; she currently has no evidence of disease. Prior to her diagnosis, she was a young mother, chemistry professor and scientist living in Chicago. She is now in pursuit of a new identity with the aid of her two young children, her supportive husband and the Houston scientific community. 

I was recently asked how breast cancer has affected me as a mother. My kids were 1 and 4 when I was diagnosed. I'm sure that I've gone through many of the same stages that anyone diagnosed with cancer has, including denial, anger, grief and acceptance.

Have those stages been worse for me as a mother than for someone without children?
I can't say. All I know is that having young children has provided a necessary distraction at some points during my treatment, but also added to my confusion and grief.

At the early stages of my diagnosis, I was sure that death would come quickly. I cried a lot when I thought about my baby girl growing up without a mother and the fact that my kids wouldn't remember me or have me there to remind them of how much they are loved. 

The thought of these things causes me to tear up even now. 

I thought that maybe I'd have a year or two because surely someone with Stage 4 breast cancer wouldn't have much longer than that. I'd heard reports of women making it 5, 10 or sometimes even (miraculously) 30, but as a scientist, I knew that the odds were -- and are -- against me. 

An oncologist even recommended that I make a two-year plan, considering the seriousness of my diagnosis. 

After that, I wrote on my CaringBridge site that I needed to plan for what I would leave behind for my children. People suggested that I write each of my kids letters that would be given to them when they were older, collect gifts for special occasions that I would miss, make picture books of special moments with them and make quilts they could use to remember me. 

I even bought a couple of journals to write them letters. I wrote one or two entries to each of them. But I got too busy living life to spend time writing letters that they wouldn't read until I died. 

What's the upside of being a mother with small children while you have cancer?

Little kids, especially toddlers, don't have a lot of sympathy on those days when you've had chemo and don't feel great. They don't care if you're tired. They have needs, both physical and emotional, and they know how to get what they need. Even if you can barely get out of bed, you will find the energy to try to take care of those needs. 

Having young children helps to focus your energy on something positive (and often very cute), instead of the uncertainties of cancer. 

Another great thing is that young children still love you, even though you don't have hair, eyebrows, eye lashes or color in your cheeks. They don't look at you like a sick person; they just see Mommy. 

Often, they're happy to cuddle on the couch when you don't have energy to play; they just want your attention and love.

What's the downside of having young kids during cancer treatment?  
While you're literally struggling with life and death, you have to worry about someone else's needs. You don't have much time to contemplate what's happening to your body because your attention and energy are in constant demand. 

During these times, it helps to have extra helpers -- family, friends, babysitters, whatever. You have to take time to focus on your own physical and emotional needs. 

Cancer treatment is a battle, and your body is the battlefield. This is the time to call in reinforcements. 

While I was undergoing chemo, I was blessed to have neighbors who set up a website to coordinate dinner deliveries. I also had a full-time nanny since I was still working. My in-laws lived with us during the worst part of chemo -- adriamycin and cytoxan for me -- to help with the kids. 

All of this physical and emotional support allowed me to spend time with my kids during the fun times, but have others step in when I needed a break. Most mothers with cancer will never have this is a luxury. But it's something that can make a tangible difference.
In the almost 24 months since I was diagnosed with cancer, I've gone through many cycles of treatment and emotions. I've gone through 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a radical mastectomy, physical therapy, radiation, many infusions of Zometa (an anti-osteoporosis medicine), many scans, lost my hair, re-gained my hair, and I continue to deal with lymphedema, chemo brain, and post traumatic stress from my diagnosis. 

I had to take a leave of absence from my beloved career as a chemistry professor and finally had to resign so that I could focus more on my family and myself. 

My diagnosis has permanently changed my life forever, but being a mom has helped me keep things in perspective. I will live the rest of my life as a cancer patient, but I take comfort in knowing that I do not travel this road alone. 

Regardless of what happens with my treatment, I know I've helped create two beautiful children, and I will spend the rest of my life making sure that they know that they mean the world to me.


After reading your story I can't help but feel moved because of the wonderful things you wrote. I'm a former cancer patient, I had leukemia when I was 8 years old, and although the experience is much different, there are also many similarities. First, I had my mom with me the whole time, she was my rock, to whom I cried even though I couldn't understand much of what was happening. But she was there to feed me, take care of me and most important to keep me smiling (I swear, she did everything she could to put a smile on my face). I was treated on the MD Anderson too, so we stayed in the Ronald McDonald House, that is blocks away, and there we had many friends, other families who would act just as your neighbors do now. And finally, I had the rest of my family waiting and praying for me here in Peru, so I would be able to return as soon as possible. I couldn't agree more on everything you just wrote, friends and family's help and support is essential.
I really hope everything goes well.


Sandra has been an example to us all as she goes through her cancer experience with courage, grace and dignity. I am one of those neighbors who was blessed with the opportunity to bring a meal or two to the Bishnois, and also to share with Sandra some highs and certainly some lows during the initial phase of her battle. We remember that January day almost two years ago, but now happily celebrate with Sandra her "no evidence of disease." As for her children, I know they are well aware that they mean the world to their mother and will always carry that in their hearts. I wish her all the best.

First, Sandra and anyone else with Stage 4 breast cancer.

I also have Stage 4 bc. I am a single mom of two young kids. Also dx jan 2011 with mets to bone (and distant lymph nodes). My children were ages 7 and 11 at my dx.

Sandra, i am interested to know more about your tx. Why did you have a mastectomy? (as it is not standard to have a mastectomy if dx at Stage 4, except if it is palliative). I'm glad you are NED, and would love to know more about that, too.

I feel there is a dearth of info for people parenting with terminal cancer. I am thinking of working on that!

I HAVE written for my girls, though not as much as I would like. So far it is on my computer. I have a long list of things I'd like to do for them, including photo albums. Sigh. Much of it the things other moms plan to do, too, but seem not to find the time.

Sandra, if you want to get in touch with me to email in private, I'd like that!

Thank you Sandra for your story.

I am a mother of a 5 and 7 year old and was diagnosed with Stage 4 bc in June 2010. There have been a few other mothers of young children with stage 4 breast cancer but we are small population within an already small group. It is always good to hear similar stories and to hear that you are doing so well.

I am interested in your treatment and which doctors at MD Anderson you work with. I am on the East Coast but have considered going to MD Anderson for a second opinion.

Thank you for your encouraging story and I will you all the best

Hi Janice,
I would be happy to talk. I know how lonely this journey can be, but take heart. There are many going through the same thing and there is much to be hopeful about. You can reach me through my CaringBridge site:

Good luck with your journey.

Best wishes,

I agree that it seems like there is a small population, but unfortunately it is a growing one. I found a lot of inspiration from the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network ( when I was originally diagnosed. It was great to see some positive stories.

Best wishes to you, also.


I write this to you and to anyone else diagnosed with a life threatening illness. I am a 22 yr. breast cancer survivor. I was 37 when I first developed cancer and I remember my first thought being “my children, what would happen to them.” I have gone through two separate mastectomies, nine years apart and have spent 20 years raising money to find a cure with Susan G. Komen. Three years ago, my 41 yr. old friend knew that she was losing her battle and wanted to leave videos with advice for her 8 year old daughter. After researching, I found that there wasn’t an organization out there that would come to your home and help you. For that reason, we started Thru My Eyes, a not-for profit organization that helps people with chronic life threatening illnesses make free clinically guided video legacies for their children and loved ones. Our focus is on parents with young children. Making this video does not mean that we are giving up battling our disease. It means that we are merely taking out an insurance policy. After all, don’t we take out insurance on almost everything? It is my sincere hope that 15 years from now, you will be watching your video with your children. Be well, Carri

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