Can Cancer strip a woman and/or mum of her identity?

Karen Holden, founder of A City Law Firm and Mumpreneur asks for your thoughts.

I have never been diagnosed with cancer, but I have experienced family members going through Chemo and sadly losing the battle with breast cancer. I met someone recently who challenged the philosopher in me and made me really think about how we as women and mums identify ourselves and act in adversity.

To outline the question, here is a short story of a woman and mum of two that truly inspired me over summer. This is not a sad and depressing story, I promise.  It will hopefully inspire you and make you really think.

Clearly this is not going to relate to everyone and is only my perception and opinion.

On a recent holiday I met a lovely mum who seven years ago, following the birth of her second child, was diagnosed with breast cancer. After Chemo and a mastectomy she was successfully in remission. She looks amazing after surgery and you would never suspect. However, over the years she had to go for regular check-ups with the constant fear of it returning.

I am told she has personally had to pay thousands for medical procedures and sadly just before she came on holiday, she was told the thing she had been dreading; her cancer had returned and was now chronic and in her bones. She confided in me it could be in her head/neck and as soon as she landed it was back on to the chemo.

This lady, only in 40’s, has a seven-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son, who were a true delight to be around.  I assumed, they did not know about their mother, as the entire family was relaxed, composed and positive – a normal family on holiday.

It amazed me how positive and relaxed this amazing woman was, but to discover her children were aware and were taking this so maturely threw me completely. I have no idea how I would handle this situation myself, let alone as a young child.

At first I admit I was surprised how independent her children were permitted to be in the resort, but it became clear after her comments, that she is teaching them independence and maturity in the event of the worst-case scenario. This turned me cold with fear but also gave me the feeling of awe that her family were so strong.

One day a plane flew past the hotel advertising a popular local singer who was to perform down the road. Her husband and her immediately embraced this and arranged tickets, which she said was truly a wonderful night for the entire family. My friends in London without children need weeks to plan these types of events so her spontaneity and thirst to enjoy life to the fullest was awe-inspiring and infectious.

Not once did you see any negativity with this family, only love, commitment and positive thoughts. We discovered that her husband had booked a jewellery fitting for their anniversary on their return from holiday which gave her something to focus on and look forward too.

My little boy sat on my knee for 30 minutes when they left the day before us, so upset to lose these adorable children and something in me felt different. All my moans and worries mean so little at the thought of these children losing a mum or this amazing woman not seeing them grow up, but never once was it miserable to be around them, only inspiring.

The thing she mentioned though that has set a debate going on in my head is that she has been told she can no longer work. A career working mum has now medically retired as a direct result of her cancer.

The question she raised was ‘what will my children think’ and ‘what will I tell them’? Who will she be if she no longer has a job title, how will her children perceive her as she wants to be recognised as a career women who did have a path?

This was a thought provoking question but an odd one considering the battle she was about to have. I couldn’t at first understand the importance as all she needed to worry about was survival and being there for the kids, right?

As I explored this further and later discussed this with other working mum’s, I was taken back by how relevant this question was to so many of us.

On holiday when I discussed this with my husband, he completely got it.  He retired from his full time career and whilst he still works part-time as a manger (affording him flexibility so he can help raise our son), he also wants our son to know he had a career and was a professional before he retired. He really is determined about this as he wants our son to respect him, understand he had thriving career and didn’t want him to think daddy only works part time whilst mummy runs a business.

It is clear from my meetings and friends, who are working mums in professional careers, that they do ultimately identify ourselves with our working role and feel this is something to proudly display to our children.

Wrongly or rightly we promote our identity to the world and our children in line with our professions.  I admit I see myself as a business owner/solicitor and then a mother and wife. Whilst the latter roles are certainly more important to me it is not something I automatically identify myself as first off.

So, if we retire or leave our job for whatever reason, even if it affords more time with your child, why are we so concerned as to how our child then perceives us? Is it a fear they will not strive as hard? Or is it we still want to command their respect? Or is there something in us that needs to keep being that career person as we are scared to give up a large part of who we were for parenthood?

In this scenario, my amazing lady remained a dutiful wife, a wonderful loving mum, a fun person to be around, but she felt her identity as a professional had been stripped from her.

Being a parent is always tough though rewarding; working away from your children is always difficult but can also be fulfilling, but the thought of losing either fills me with dread and I honestly don’t know if could be as brave and positive as my lady. She may never know how much she has impressed upon me.