In November 2018 the unimaginable happened. At 37, with a 6 month old and 3 year old at home, I was diagnosed with Stage IIIc colon cancer. Over the next year, I would undergo countless tests and scans, 1 major surgery, 2 minor ones, 8 rounds of chemotherapy infusions, and hundreds (and hundreds) of oral chemotherapy pills.
That was the hardest year of my life, to be sure. Treatment and its side effects were terrible but managing all of that while raising two little kids was a lot. I was balancing doctors appointments and recovery with weaning my daughter, preschool drop-offs, and getting dinner on the table.
Our family was so lucky. In spite of how hard it was to balance treatment and parenting, we had tremendous support. I had friends and family flying in to help me recover from surgery, to give my husband a break, or to cook for us as I recovered from an infusion. Our local community showed up too, babysitting when possible, walking our dog, or just hanging out and not talking to us about cancer. People reached out and we took them up on their offers to help.
Even with so much family, so many friends, and community lifting us up in the hardest moments, there was something missing. At the infusion center where I received care, I rarely saw anyone my age. My medical social workers weren’t able to point me to other young people, let alone other young parents like myself. After wading through the internet, my husband and I pieced together resources to help us navigate talking to our kids about cancer but we felt alone as we parented with and through cancer.
In the middle of my treatment I was lucky to visit a caring healthcare provider who, after hearing my story, had the foresight to connect me to another young mom with cancer, Aimee Barnes. Me and Aimee became fast friends, talking about cancer and kids but also all of the other things that occupied our lives, our marriages, friends, and work. A shared understanding of what cancer can take from a family and the associated grief helped build a foundation for mutual support and helped both of us to feel less alone.
Bright Spot Network was born from those early conversations. Aimee and I wanted to build a community where parents with cancer and young kids could come to find others who were also navigating first steps and infusion appointments; balancing summer camps schedules with clinical trial schedules out of state; figuring out how to get food on the table while negotiating with insurance companies. It is hard enough to be a parent of a young child in the best of circumstances. When cancer is added to the mix it can feel, at times, impossible. We wanted to create a space that mitigated that alienation, that helped parents feel less alone and provided them with the critical support that they needed.
We launched Bright Spot Network 2.5 years ago and in that time we have built the nonprofit that we wished existed when we were in the thick of surgeries and treatment (and middle of the night wake-ups). We now offer a financial grant for families navigating cancer and financial stress, free age-appropriate kids’ books on cancer, big emotions, grief and loss; an art box that provides a point of connection between parent and child, even when things feel scary; support groups for parents and partners; web resources for kids like coloring pages; and web resources for parents like tips on how to talk to kids about a parent’s cancer diagnosis.
I know that I am not alone in parenting with cancer (there are over 562,000 minors in the U.S. who have a parent undergoing the early stages of active cancer treatment). I am heartened to know that those diagnosed tomorrow and far into the future, will have the resources they need to help them with the unimaginable task of parenting with cancer.
Haley Pollack is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Bright Spot Network. A national organization dedicated to supporting families where a parent or primary caregiver has cancer and is raising young kids.
This story was written by Haley Pollack, for our Hello Parents series. Our mission is to create a community of extreme inclusivity. Appreciating what makes us different and what we all have in common. No judgment. Just a village of support.