What It's like to Have Kids After Cancer

How lucky am I? Today I restart my cancer treatment after being off of it for over nine months. I've had chronic myelogenous leukemia (a slow-moving form of blood cancer) for 12 years and though the disease has been in a deep remission for 10 of those years, I still take meds every day. I am extremely lucky that those meds come in pill form and have almost no side effects for me. Gleevec, a targeted therapy considered a miracle drug for CML patients, was approved by the FDA just six months before I was diagnosed (it brought the CML survival rate from 50 percent to 95 percent — a miracle, indeed). But Gleevec is not a cure, which means I have to stay on it indefinitely. It also means I had to stop treatment and risk my life in order to have children (the drug is not pregnancy safe). I know some of you will think this next part is crazy, but…I did that three times.

On November 16, I gave birth to my third post-cancer child. When I was diagnosed — at 23 — I didn't know if I'd live five years let alone if I'd ever be able to have a family. Twelve years later, I'm thriving and I have five stockings hanging on my mantle to prove it. I am about the luckiest cancer patient around (trust me, I know how brutal this disease is and how many people do not survive) and I never forget that.

Having a family — and doing it biologically — was not a decision my husband and I came upon lightly. I have had the best doctors in the world on my team (led by my beloved oncologist Michael Mauro, whose support and friendship over the last 12 years has made anything seem possible). We researched and soul searched and weighed every option. And unlike some patients with CML, my disease was immediately and completely responsive to treatment, which meant I was a good candidate for taking a break. So we went for it (you can read more about the process and how I was monitored here) and then we went for it again. And again. Just like with my first two pregnancies, the CML didn't come back while I was off treatment this last time and I am beyond grateful for that. And I'm eager to get back on my drug. But it's bittersweet. Because I won't be having any more kids, so I will likely never have a break from treatment again. I haven't had a bad experience with the medicine to speak of (some Gleevec patients have so, again, I'm lucky) but taking a hard-core, life-saving drug everyday is a reminder that I do, in fact, have cancer. And it's always going to be a part of my life. As a mom that can be a tough pill to swallow, pun intended. Knowing I have this disease — however deep in remission it may be — gets me choked up every once in a while when I think about my now-very big family and what would happen if I weren't here to raise them. Every mom worries about leaving her children motherless but when you actually have a life-threatening disease on the books, it makes the what-ifs a little more tangible.

That said, I really try not to lose too much sleep thinking about the CML coming back. But I do worry about my kids worrying about me. You don't want to think of your parents as anything but invincible, right? I remember stressing out if my parents got a cold and now we're talking about cancer. The word itself is just so scary. And it's so prevalent. I am very open about my disease and very involved in the cancer community so my older two (ages 6 and almost 4) know that I had/have cancer. (The 6-year-old understands a lot more than the younger one, obviously.) They know I take a special medicine. They know that kids can get cancer (I've taken them to fundraisers for local children) and they know that some people aren't as lucky as I am. But I also make sure they know that I am strong and healthy and responsible with my medicine and that I see my doctor regularly (they came to my last appointment with me!). They know that I beat cancer and they know that their Aunt Mimi beat cancer (my sister, Melissa, was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma 18 months after I was diagnosed). They also know that even though you can get very sick you can also get better, and that life can go on and that anything is possible. And I encourage them to ask me questions about it any time (Alex, my six-year-old son, recently asked if only redheads get cancer — the two people he knows who've had it happen to have red hair…).

My beloved oncologist and the three kids he helped make possible.

My kids also know how important it is to raise money to help other patients and to help fund the doctors who are working toward a cure. I am very involved with The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and I've taken them to walks and to hear me speak at events and to pick up donations for fundraising raffles and auctions. They understand that when you are as lucky as I have been, you need to give back. In many ways I feel grateful that my disease has enabled me to teach them this lesson at such an early age. And that I learned at such a young age what's really important in life (hint: it ain't working endless hours at a job that doesn't make you happy). The number one thing to me has always been family. I didn't want cancer to take my chance to have kids away from me and it didn't. I may still be in treatment but I am a survivor. I am proof that there is life after cancer; life with cancer. You don't often hear "having cancer" and "being lucky" in the same sentence but as I swallow my pill today — with my three kids sitting around me — that's exactly how I will be feeling. I know that I have won big time. And I will never forget it.