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Fight or Flight: Life After My Daughter's Cancer

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The fight-or-flight response. One of nature’s most well-known reactions. When facing a dangerous or potentially life-threatening situation, a person (or animal) might have two responses: to fight the danger or to flee to safety.

When Maia was first diagnosed with cancer at 3 years old, as a mom my natural instincts kicked in. My immediate reaction was to face it head on and do whatever I could to help her “beat” it. My fight-mode took over without me even realizing it. And in every scary situation that came up (her getting a blood clot, middle-of-the-night ER visits, scary blood counts, infections, tachycardia), I was able to stay level-headed and calmly do whatever I had control over doing to make sure she got the care she needed and felt safe and happy through it as much as possible.

Most people have this reaction to cancer. Whether it is the person fighting it themselves or someone close to them fighting, we call it a fight for a reason. That fight response takes over and it is all we can do to face it head on. But what happens when there is nothing left to fight?

As we got closer and closer to the end of Maia’s nearly 2-and-a-half-year treatment, my flight instinct came alive inside of me. My whole world has been consumed with fighting cancer, Maia’s whole world had been consumed with fighting cancer. It is who we are. Maia doesn’t even remember what life was like before her cancer. She has been fighting for almost half of her life.  And I was under some impression that once her cancer was gone, the fight would be over, and that would be it. We “won.” The threat would be gone.

And while the immediate threat is gone, there is always a chance of relapse. But that isn’t the main reason I want to run. The main reason is that, while the cancer treatment is over, nothing else is. Maia will continue to get blood tests every month for a while. They will get farther and farther in between, but she won’t be considered cured until five years from now. And while the cancer is gone, the side effects from the treatment are just starting to pop up. Besides the physical therapy that continues to strengthen her legs and the fractures that are still healing in her ankles from the chemo and steroids, we are starting to see some cognitive impacts of the treatment. And I worry it is just the beginning. Common late effects of cancer treatment in kids include (but is not limited to) learning problems, abnormal bone growth, thyroid problems, vision problems, dental problems, lung, liver, and kidney problems, hearing loss, delayed sexual development and fertility issues, and increased risk of future cancers. Common late effects — some of which we are already starting to see.

Sometimes I wonder why this girl can’t catch a break. And then I remember there are other kids who are still fighting, or have relapsed, or have lost their lives, and I realize this is the break. Survivor’s guilt is also a real thing. Knowing so many are still fighting for or have lost their lives. Knowing those families are in pain that we can only begin to imagine in the worst thoughts we can fathom. It is all around me. And when it is other people and not us, I don’t know how to fight for them. As much as I want to. And I’m stuck, watching a threat I can neither fight nor run from.

family of four taking a selfie

And I want to run. I want to run from it all. But I don’t know where to go because this is not the same world  I used to live in. And I’m not the same person I used to be. I don’t know myself anymore. For better and for worse. I am stronger, more confident, more appreciative, and more efficient than ever before. I am also more volatile, less considerate, impatient, and tired. I am changed. And so is Maia. And she can’t understand why now that her leukemia is gone, she still can’t run as fast as other kids or keep up with activities. I’ve watched her become more frustrated and sad when she can’t do things other kids are doing, and I worry she will start to feel like it defines her. And while I’m glad she won’t remember a lot of her treatment, she also may not remember the strength she had to get through it all. She will only see the lasting impact it has had on her.

So here we are. Once again, we have to figure out how to mold into this new life we are starting to live. And we have to recognize that while the cancer is gone, the impact is lasting. And through that, we are grateful to remember we are the lucky ones. And we hold onto that as we have good days and bad because a bad day is most certainly better than no day at all.

little girl with leukemia at a disney birthday party

I don’t know what the rest of this journey holds for us. I do know this is the close of a chapter and the start of a new one. It is not the end of our cancer journey because everyone who has had cancer in their life knows the journey never ends. There is no life without cancer once it has had such a big place in your life. There is only life after cancer, and this is the beginning of ours. And while I may want to run, I’ve decided I won’t run away. Instead, I will run at whatever this next chapter brings and meet it head-on. We may have nothing left to fight, but we have a lot to overcome, and that we know how to do.

Follow this journey on Maia’s Fight.

Header photo by Nadezhda1906/Getty Images. Photos in piece via contributor.

Originally published: October 23, 2018
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