Motherhood and purpose after a cancer diagnosis

I have been a stay-at-home mom my entire marriage. I was a single mother with my first child, so I knew once I had children with my current husband, I'd do all the things I'd wished I had time to do the first time around.

Things were comfortable in our daily life until breast cancer came at me at the very beginning of the school year 2016. I had a son who had left home and was living out of state, a son just starting high school, two daughters starting kindergarten and second grade, and a developmentally challenged 3-year-old at home. To say I had a lot on my plate would be putting it mildly.

I knew I couldn't do this alone.

We had to explain to all our children, in different ways, that I was sick and everyone would have to do their part around the house to help out. Letting go of control was difficult, but realizing how much my family depended on me and how much of myself I'd lost along the way was even more difficult to see.

My entire existence was focused on my family, from making ornate bento box lunches to doing and putting away massive amounts of laundry. I did everything for my family, as most moms do.

I felt that having a family gave me purpose. I didn't have hardly any activities outside the home. When I did do or go somewhere without my family, I'd feel guilty for being away. It is such a slow process, I'd taken on more and more over the years, thinking that to be the best mom, only I was capable of doing everything for everyone at 100%. Having breast cancer forced me to let it all go. It helped me to really understand why flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on first before you help anyone else.

The end of my major treatment happened to coincide with my youngest child going to school. After 10 years of being home with small children, I finally had my days to myself! It was exciting. I could have silence. I could listen to music as loud as I wanted. I could sleep or I could run. I could shop alone! I could have lunch with friends. Once my mommy duties were done, I could do whatever I wanted. But what did I want?

The more time passed, the more I saw myself as a blank slate, be that good or bad. I didn't have any immediate interests, I didn't have many friends who could hang out during the day. At times, I felt lonely. Being a mom was so entrenched in my identity, I struggled to figure out who I was separate from it.

After diep flap surgery and aromatase inhibitors, I was desperate to figure out how to ease physical pain and do right by my body. I found some fitness programs for folks who'd experienced a cancer diagnosis. I'd never worked out in my life, i didn't even know how to. I found a program called Active Living After Cancer, which showed me how to implement physical activity, and the Livestrong at the YMCA program, which introduced me to a gym. I joined a community workout group. I found a friend to run and train with. I did free workouts through Athleta and MeetUp.I forced myself to do things out of my comfort zone. For an extreme introvert who struggled with anxiety, it was not easy. But I did it! I made friends. I built myself up, tried new things. I was proud of what I saw I could accomplish.

All through this year of getting myself well physically, I started to meet other women here and there in the breast cancer community. I realized how being around them made me feel good. They were funny. They were tough. They were genuine and caring. Before I knew it they were important in my life.

“Wouldn't it be awesome if I could introduce women newly diagnosed to this camaraderie early in their journey?” I thought. But where do I start? Young Survival Coalition was the obvious first place I needed to be. I offered to volunteer at events to better get to know my local group. I signed up to be a CanCare volunteer at the hospital I received treatment. I asked to volunteer with WigOut, helping women who are seeing the physical effects of treatment as their starting their journey.

After attending the YSC Summit, I messaged women from my state, just to reach out and connect. I go to conferences, lunches, and support groups. I fill my days with as much “good” as I possibly can. Volunteering has given me a purpose. If I can connect women to each other, if I can make someone smile, if I could possibly change someone's perspective in a positive way, then I know I've succeeded in finding a purpose.

I am at a place in my life that I never would have thought possible. Had I not received a breast cancer diagnosis, I would not be writing this now. Don't wait for a diagnosis like this to change your life, but if you receive one, use it to do just that. Grab opportunities. Or just make them. Seek out what you need. Don't be afraid of rejection because all it means is there's another path to get to what you want. Be open. Be genuine. Don't get caught up in bullshit. Serve your fellow human. Live mindfully. Remember those who aren't with us and use that to set an intention for yourself. Live to honor them. Put yourself out there. Just keep trying. I dont always practice all of these things all the time, but I try.

I've learned that I don't have to “Mom” all the time either — my children can and have learned to be capable. Just as I've gotten some independence, so have they. And I'm a better mother because of it. I hope to show my children, especially my daughters, that no job, no role in life, no illness defines who you are. Only you yourself can write that definition.

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Miranda Gonzales is a resourceful DIYer, 43-year-old stay-at-home mom of five, and wife of 18 years to her best friend