Photo of Nikki McCoy and her family.
In the summer of 2021, just weeks before my 40th birthday, I got the devastating news that 1 in 8 women will receive every year: I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
I had found a small lump near my armpit, and it had spread to my lymph nodes. I carry the BRCA1 gene mutation and was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My then 15-year-old son was the first person I saw after getting the shocking call. With zero composure, I crumpled into his arms in the first significant episode of role reversal in our relationship. Bigger than I am, he didn’t cry — he comforted me simply with his presence.
Now that I am a year out, after surgery, chemo, radiation and integrative care, and now with no evidence of disease (yay!), I have been reflecting on what has been one hell of a journey. And what stands out sharply is that my approach to parenting — while still built on a foundation of family values — has drastically shifted.
Here’s what I learned:
1. Let go of control. Seriously, lower the bar.
A cancer diagnosis — or any serious life-altering change — forces a person to look inward. A world that was once expansive with karate lessons, school plays and book club now shrinks to remembering to stay hydrated and making it to weekly doctor’s appointments. Only activities that were absolutely necessary mattered while my brain was in survival mode. That’s all I could control. During this time, did my family wobble? One hundred percent. My oldest teen’s grades dropped to D’s. My husband had restless nights. They were all in survival mode, too. (Remember, this is also during COVID-19.) Was I concerned for their well-being? Of course. Was there anything I could do about it? Nope. Not this time. Mom could not come to the rescue.
As we all regained our bearings and trended toward a new normal, the lesson remained: I must have my oxygen mask on first before I can take care of others. My family is no longer micro-managed (albeit unwittingly) by me. I say yes, a lot. I trust a lot. I don’t stress like I used to. I can’t remember the last time I had a power struggle with either of my teens. And it’s been great for us all.
2. Teens still process through play.
This one surprised me. While play looks different for older kids — think pop culture and school interactions — I was given windows into how my kids were using creative outside outlets to process what was happening. My 16-year-old watched all five seasons of “Breaking Bad.” (Before the diagnosis, this would never have been allowed. See lessons nos. 1 and 3.) While some of the action and drama was surely the draw, the main story line is about a parent who has cancer and wants to take care of his family. Frequent scenes with doctor’s appointments and family dynamics around diagnosis and treatment pepper the plot line. My therapist and I agreed that watching it was one way for my kid to make sense of what was happening.
In school, a history project had to show how our family line has been affected by historic events. My son drew a giant awareness ribbon, filled with facts about the evolution of health care and surgery options for breast cancer patients. Surely, researching, writing and coloring were all therapeutic.
3. Let them be.
Of course, health and safety boundaries still exist, but otherwise, I no longer question my sons’ choices. During my “non-parenting” phase when I was focused only on treatment, they showed me even more clearly that they are their own people. Tomorrow is never guaranteed, but I now know that they would be okay no matter what happens. Do they want to go all day playing video games with their doors closed only to emerge for meals in the evening? That’s fine with me. They are bright and engaged when we do interact.
Do they want to handle their homework on their own (even if nonexistent) schedule? By all means. Who am I to determine the best time for them to get their work done? They are perfectly capable of listening to their inner voice and managing their own time and priorities. I don’t need to do any of that anymore. And it’s liberating. They know I’m here when they need me.
4. Carve out time for fun.
While the lessons above are about resiliency, this one is about letting loose. Teens are still kids after all. For Mother’s Day, my almost 13-year-old made me a card that included five things he loves about me. (Be still, my heart.) And one that stood out is that he appreciated that I made time for having fun. It’s not something I had noticed, but as I reflected, I remembered that during my windows of strength, we did things like go to the movies, play board games or make a trek into nature. To celebrate finishing treatment, we went to Disneyland. Making memories together is essential in our family, and now that my son has pointed that out so blatantly, I am even more intentional about finding time to laugh, play and let loose.
5. Be discreet — but tell the truth.
I had to be honest about my diagnosis with my kids. I would read straight from doctor’s notes and chemo pamphlets. I shared blood work, and we looked up medical terms together. Having the facts helped us cope and created a safe place for transparency. Did they need to know the ins and outs of the prognosis? No. The risks of chemo or recurrence? No. But did they deserve to know what was happening medically? Absolutely.
6. Get your affairs in order.
Facing the fear of death at age 40 knocked a little sense into me when it comes to legacy planning. It’s important to prepare an advanced directive, reexamine and update your will (if needed), and, if you’re a little grim like me, even write your good-bye letters and create your funeral playlist. While somewhat unsettling to do this type of preparation, it’s ultimately comforting to know that these crucial documents are in place.
7. They may be at risk for cancer, too.
Family health history matters. My father had pancreatic cancer; his mom and aunt both had ovarian cancer; my uncles had prostate cancer; and a cousin received the same diagnosis that I did. That’s because we all carry the BRCA1 gene mutation — and this makes us more susceptible to developing cancer. My sons have a 50/50 chance of inheriting the gene mutation. They can make a choice at the age of 18 about whether or not to get genetic counseling and testing. If they know their risk ahead of time, there are preventive measures they can take. Knowledge is power.
8. They grow up fast.
While we can all agree that the pandemic has warped our sense of time, I can’t even believe the “Big C” year flew by so quickly. In the darkest days of chemo, time seemed at a standstill. And now, I have an eighth-grader and a junior in high school. Blink. Blink. I’m now looking into the future with a deeper understanding of how quickly time flies, how precious this one life is, and I am dreaming big and making plans.
9. You’re still mom.
“Hey mom! What’s for dinner?” may be an expression I never tire of hearing. Though my perspective on what truly matters has shifted, and my teens had to take some leaps in maturity that I would never wish on anyone, the fact remains that I’m still their mom. They know — maybe even more so — that a relationship with their parent in the ultimate state of vulnerability and uncertainty is still one that they can rely on. We are all a little more understanding of the human condition, and our parent-child bond has not only survived, it has thrived. And for that, I am truly grateful.