By Nicole Scobie
We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop.
Most mom friendships are formed because of a shared mutual experience, like two kids in the same daycare, the same class, or team. The moms get to know each other, first exchanging a few words at drop-off or pick-up, then warming up over a cup of coffee. Over time, they become friends. The shared experience of their children’s similar activity creates a bond that can last for years, as the moms watch their kids grow up together.
Natalie and I met that way, when my son Elliot was 5 and her daughter Zoé was 4 years old.
Our kids had shared the experience of cancer.
Elliot was diagnosed two weeks after starting school. A 6-inch tumor in his abdomen, multiple smaller tumors all over his lungs, making it stage 4. Zoé’s was in her bone marrow, requiring high intensity treatments.
Almost a full year of some of the hardest days (and nights). I held my son’s hand as he asked why this was happening. I talked to him about life and death, telling him how brave he was, while I was shaking with fear inside.
Friendships between two moms born this way are like no other — there are so many things that fall away when you’ve seen each other at your worst, at your angriest, at your most anxious and at your most relieved.
Bizarrely, despite the horrific situation we found ourselves in, the thing that drew us closest was laughing together. Nothing beats watching your child squirt a syringe of liquid at the doctor with another cancer mom there to witness it and laugh hysterically with you later. Laughing is great — I actually think laughter might just be the antonym of fear.
The downside of these friendships is that you now worry for another child. The burden is huge — knowing just how serious the situation is, feeling the fear because it is so bitterly familiar.
And then, the magic word: remission. No cancer left. Clear scans.
Both our kids entered the world of “normal,” where they could play outside with other kids again, where their hair started to grow back, where they, and we, were free of the hospital except for the regular three month checkups.
Natalie and I founded a non-profit organization together, to raise funds for research and help other families. One out of four children with cancer will die — we wanted to change that. We worked endless hours at it but still laughed at some of the ridiculous situations we found ourselves in. Speaking in front of large groups, for example, something we both hated, became a regular thing. What a strange path our lives had taken.
And meanwhile, there were always those three month checkups, to make sure the cancer hadn’t come back. The stress of watching Elliot lying on that table, me standing nearby with a heavy lead vest on. The technician telling him over the intercom, “Ok now lie very still.” The table sliding through the scanner. “Now take a deep breath and hold it.” The table sliding back through the scanner. “Ok now breathe.” I’d exhale. “Now we’ll do it again, lie very still…”
And the wait until days later, when my husband and I would be escorted into the oncologist’s office to get the results. Scanning the face of the doctor and nurse for some sign. Relief streaming out of me like hot air from a kettle after finding out all is clear. No relapse. We were free to go, back in three months.
First thing out of the meeting with the oncologist, as we walked down the hallway and before we got to the hospital elevator, I texted Natalie. We were both thrilled, relieved.
And then, a few months later, I got Natalie’s message, when she was in the hallway of the hospital.
But it was not good news this time.
Zoé had relapsed.
The cancer was back.
You are expecting me to write that we cried together and supported each other, like close friends do in the movies. But we didn’t. We are cancer moms. We didn’t break down, at least not in front of each other. Those are tears that, once begun, can’t stop. And won’t help anyone get through what happens next.
We didn’t cry. We fought back. We rallied. We researched and learned about this cancer, about the treatments. When one treatment failed we were ready for the next. Up until that last day when Zoé had bravely endured a brand new promising treatment and her parents went in for the results to see if this time, it had finally worked.
And I got the message from Natalie. I can’t say what I felt. Empty, I think.
The cancer was still there. The scan showed a little 4-year-old body, full, from head to toe, with cancer cells.
We knew even before the oncologist officially said it that there would be no more treatments.
Zoé died in her mother’s arms two weeks after that text message. I spoke at her ceremony. I couldn’t face the audience so instead I turned and spoke to the big, poster size photo of Zoé on the altar next to the flowers and toys placed there. I thanked her for what she had given me, the chance to have known her, the friendship with her mom, and I thanked her for her laughter. Zoé laughed a lot too.
My son lived. Her daughter died. There was no logical reason for it to turn out that way. It just did. We got lucky with one and unlucky with the other. Despite it all, we are still close friends.
Almost two years have passed. Elliot has checkups every six months now. I text Natalie right away, and she’s relieved.
Our non-profit has grown and now funds critical research, and supports families while their child is in treatment. It’s what we always wanted. Even though things didn’t turn out how we wanted.
Nicole Scobie, mom to three great kids, one of whom is luckily in remission from stage 4 cancer of the kidney.
Author’s Note: Nicole and Natalie now run zoe4life.org, the non-profit organization that supports kids with cancer and their families.
Photo: Samuel Zeller