Vanessa Ghigliotty: Parenting with cancer

Vanessa Ghigliotty: Parenting with cancer

Vanessa Ghigliotty: Parenting with cancer

By: Vanessa Ghigliotty, CPN

The role of single parenthood can be isolating and comes with it’s own challenges. Some people choose this path; others, like myself, wind up carrying the burden of being both mom and dad because that’s just how life turned out.

For me, being a very young mom did not mean my son was going to miss out on anything that older, married parents can give their kids. I guess you can say I had this chip on my shoulder and needed to prove to my family and, more importantly, to myself that I could provide a great life for my son. This included fulfilling my dream of getting a bachelor’s and then a law degree.

I took a job as a nanny, so I could go to school while my son was in school, and then work in the evening, while he was with me. It was perfect. In fact, the future looked pretty amazing for us. But what I didn’t plan on was to be diagnosed with colon cancer before I even got to start my LSTATS.

Stage IV colon cancer at 28 years old. The first oncologist felt chemotherapy would not make that much difference. My world crumbled to pieces. I sat in the cold hospital room, looking out a huge window at a catholic school and a cross, where a bird was so peacefully perched. It wasn’t until the bird flew away that I realized … what about my son!?

Parenting is difficult enough, but throw in trying to be a parent while you're also trying to fight for your life, and wow! That phrase, you never know how strong you are until strong is the only choice you have, takes on a whole new meaning. Am I being a little dramatic? Yes, absolutely! Even on your sickest days, you can not come close to imagining how painful tumors are or how weak chemotherapy makes you. Let’s not even get into the multiple surgeries and all the drama that causes.

Imagine your child or children being the center of attention from the moment they are born. Literally their whole entire world is completely filled with their wants and needs. Our role as parents is to meet those needs and make them our priority. Then their parent gets cancer, and boom! Their whole world is shaken to the core. What child thinks about their parents dying? Our kids have to go from being carefree and worrying about which gifts they are getting for the holidays to worrying if their parent will be here for their next birthday.

I had to personally sit down with my son, my parents, a lawyer, and a social worker to decide who will raise my son when I died. At 11 years old, my son had to make the decision of leaving everything he has ever known to go live with his father or have my parents raise him. This is what it was to parent during my battle with cancer. I took away my son’s innocence and made him grow up that day. I sit here crying because it still kills me. I will never forget having to do that. I will also never forget how many plays and karate matches I missed because I was too sick to even lift my head. I remember being so jealous of my parents, who would be so amazing and take my son on vacations or weekend getaways,  while I was home recovering from yet another surgery—10 in total. Yes, I realize that my son and I were very blessed to have my parents help, but that did not stop the jealousy or guilt I felt for not being there myself. It also did not stop the thoughts in my head that this is what my son’s life will look like without me in it.

Parenting with cancer means so many heart-wrenching, trying, stressful, moments, like how my son used to sneak into my room at night to check if I was still breathing, clean out my throw-up bucket, and put my covers back on me. But there are also so many happy and life-affirming moments. Which means  that as a cancer thriver, you make the absolute best of the time you have. Like setting up schedules and traditions so that your children’s lives can have some sense of normalcy and so they make beautiful memories in case you’re not around to raise them.

For me, it was going to our favorite restaurant every other Saturday, then off to Toys “R” Us, and, afterwards, us going for a drive and talking about everything you can possibly imagine. We also, to this day, have our weekly Chinese Food Night and a Movie. I love how my son is now an adult and we still drop everything in our lives to come together every Thursday to do this tradition that we started from my battle with cancer.

There isn’t enough room in this blog for me to go into every detail of how I overcame so many  difficulties I faced as a parent who is battling cancer. There also isn’t enough room to give you details of what my son had to grow through, but I will say this: 16 years later, my son, who is dyslexic, graduated high school with honors, is a college graduate, just sold his own business, and is now embarking on his next adventure. He is more compassionate, considerate, thoughtful, and helpful with his loved ones than I had ever been before cancer. Cancer took so many things away from him, away from us, but it did make him into a stronger and better human being, one with a wicked sense of humor!

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