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How to cope with breast cancer when you have children by Briony Jenkins

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Briony Jenkins is a familiar name to many Contented Baby mums as she's contributed features to the website for many years. 

What you may not know is that Briony was diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2008 when her children were young, and went through surgery and chemotherapy whilst looking after her family.

Now, Briony has written a book called 'How to cope with breast cancer when you have children' to try to offer some support and advice to other mothers who are diagnosed with breast cancer.

Briony spoke to Contented Baby about her book and her experiences of being a mum with breast cancer, and of going through treatment with a family.

When were you first diagnosed with breast cancer?

It was a normal Friday afternoon and I was getting ready to do the school run to collect Lucie who was three and Charlie who was seven. However, 20 June 2008 turned out to be anything but normal. As I grabbed the phone, I heard my surgeon's voice and knew immediately from the tone of his voice that something was wrong. My legs turned to jelly, my stomach churned and as I sank into a chair his words chilled me to the bone: "The pathologist has found the presence of malignant cells, you have breast cancer."

How did you cope with having to look after your family at that time?

In the beginning, I had no idea how I would cope. Nine months previously, in September 2007, we had moved 4000 miles from England to live my (then) husband's dream on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados. Steve is a commercial saturation diver and at the time of my diagnosis he was working 100 metres below sea level in the North Sea and wasn't even contactable by phone.

Living so far from home, I had no family to step in and help. Remembering the kindness shown to me by friends and neighbours at that time still brings a tear to my eye. I don't find it easy to ask for help, so even with a diagnosis of breast cancer, I worried about being a nuisance and loathed the idea of asking for help even though I desperately needed it.

Ultimately I coped because of two very special people – my surgeon Dr Ian Lewis and my friend Diane Bell. Their advice changed my life because it changed my attitude and my perspective about my disease. Diane and Dr Lewis altered my mindset and both of them, in totally different ways, showed me how to convert my overwhelming terror into the strength I needed for both my children and myself to thrive, even in the midst of such adversity.
And the advice? Diane told me that if I refused help, the ones who would suffer most would be the kids, and also that friends feel powerless in a situation like this so by accepting help - whether it was doing the school run, cooking some freezer meals or taking the kids for a play date so I could rest – they would feel better because they were doing something proactive to make a positive difference, even if they couldn't cure my cancer.

Dr Lewis gave me a reason to fight. When I wanted to curl up in bed and just cry my eyes out, he reminded me that I was a mum. He knew early on that by tapping into my maternal instincts, I would fight with every last ounce of strength to protect my children. By threatening my life, breast cancer was endangering my kids. If I ever needed a call to action, it was that. On my darkest days, my love for Charlie and Lucie gave me the courage to carry on, for their sake if not for my own.

Did your children find it difficult to understand what was happening?

Charlie knew instinctively that something was wrong even before I told him. At seven, he had seen and heard enough to know that breast cancer can kill and that was his first question. How do you tell your child that you aren't going to die when you don't know the answer yourself? Expert opinion is clear: be as gentle and diplomatic as possible, but never lie to your children. Lucie was three so she was too young to understand what breast cancer meant, but she intuitively knew that something bad was happening. Chemo in particular was hard because of the sickwell cycle. Even when it was finished, Lucie kept expecting me to get ill again and it took months for her to feel safe and trust that I really was getting better. Chemo is a funny one to explain to children - it makes no sense when you say that the medicine you are taking to get well is going to make you very ill!

What were the most difficult times for you as a mother?

The initial diagnosis was awful. I felt so utterly terrified about what I would have to endure and so helpless, knowing that my children were immensely vulnerable. I ached with the fear that I wouldn't be able to protect them from the hurt and that still causes me the greatest grief. Knowing my children have had to face the possibility of my mortality is a physical pain that will never go away.

All I can do is prepare them for what may lie ahead and give them the inner strength to cope, showering them with love along the way and bringing them up to be independent, self-reliant and positive. Facing adversity together made it easier for us to cope and has enabled us not just to survive, but to thrive. I am so proud of Charlie and Lucie, they never gave up hope and showed so much spirit, resilience and faith in a situation even adults find challenging.

Were you in touch with any other mothers with breast cancer?

The beauty of the internet is that wherever you are in the world, you can join a breast cancer forum and connect with other mums in similar situations. Parenting is challenging at the best of times, throw in a diagnosis of breast cancer or any serious illness and it can be overwhelming. I found that even when I wasn't actively involved in 'chatting', I could view the threads and found comfort and support reading about how other mums coped. The website www.breastcancer.org.uk is particularly good as it has such a large following and has new posts every day. I found it especially useful to chat to other mums about things that were considered taboo or awkward with close friends and family who were so keen to remain positive, they felt uncomfortable when I needed to talk about my deepest fears.

Did you feel there was a lack of support for you as a mother at that time?

As a mother with dependent children, I found myself in a very different situation to women who either had adult children or none at all. When I had surgery, I wasn't just traumatised about having a bi-llateral mastectomy, I was worried about how I would take care of the children after my surgery. When I had chemo, I knew that if my hair falling out would upset me, how much worse would it be for the kids. How do you explain to a child that you are too weak to pick them up for a cuddle? That you feel so sick you can't even read a bedtime story or that you want to play with them but simply don't have the energy? I wanted advice to guide me through the challenges we faced as a family rather than just as an individual.

I did get a great deal of support from friends who were mums. On hearing my diagnosis, they could immediately empathise with my situation and imagine what it would be like if they found themselves in my shoes. Because they were mums, they recognised that my burden was heavier because of worries about Charlie and Lucie, and so they did their best to lighten the load by supporting me on a practical basis as well as an emotional one.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Very early in my diagnosis, I realised that to support my children effectively through my illness I was going to have to review my parenting skills. Even as a parenting journalist, I had no experience dealing with the sort of situation I knew would arise, so I started searching on Amazon for books to help me. I identified very quickly that books on breast cancer are written from a woman's perspective rather than a mother's. That's all fine and dandy except that I needed to know how to cope with breast cancer as both a woman and a mum with two young children. In the end, I found information all over the place, from websites, doctors, books and friends and worked out my own strategies and techniques to get us through.

As a parenting journalist, I was inspired to write a couple of stories for the Chicken Soup for Soul books, a series which aims to inspire and support. I received some emails from women who read my stories and said how much it had helped them, I was so touched that I had made a difference in the lives of strangers that I wanted to write more, My book became a cathartic experience for me and something that I believe will help other mums in times of crisis.

What would your key piece of advice be to any other mother newly diagnosed with breast cancer?

You can't do it all alone so don't try to be Supermum. However, the more organised you are and the more planning you do, the easier it will be to cope. Never say no to an offer of help and be specific about what you need - flowers are lovely but someone cooking dinner or doing your laundry is even lovelier when you don't have the energy to do it yourself!

But the most important thing to remember is that as a mother, you are blessed with a secret weapon - your children. They will be the reason you never give up, they are the incentive you need to battle on when life seems overwhelming and it is their love and faith in you that will inspire you to believe you do have a future and that you can fight your way towards it, hand in hand with those you treasure most.

How to Cope with Breast Cancer When you Have Children is available on Amazon at £6.29


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