It’s a strange feeling, becoming THE mom in the “I know a young mom with two kids who got lung cancer at 37 years old” type of stories. It’s an urban legend, but it’s also my life.
It's difficult to be diagnosed with lung cancer as young as I was. I feel like I’m in the prime of my life, yet I’m facing a serious disease. I have responsibilities, like my career and my children, that people who are diagnosed later in life might not have.
My daughter was six and my son was four when I was diagnosed with lung cancer. My daughter thought she had caused the cancer. She had a cold when I first started showing symptoms, and she thought she had given it to me. I had to explain to her that colds don’t cause cancer, cancer isn’t contagious, and she did not give me cancer.
It can be hard to talk to kids about cancer. I think the most important thing is to be honest about what’s going on and try not to gaslight them. Kids know more than you think, and they are more adaptable than you realize. Every time I’m in the hospital or getting chemo, we tell the kids. It’s important that they know that I am taking medication to help me get and stay better. It’s also important that they know that I’m okay, but there will be bad days and days when everything isn’t all good.
My diagnosis was traumatizing for everyone in the family. We all do counseling: individual counseling, couples counseling, kids counseling. My kids see an art therapist, who helps them with exploring their feelings and talking about them. We want to make sure we’re dealing with the cancer the best way we know how and what that looks like for our unique family. We know there is a possibility that I might be the first one in our nuclear family to leave Earth.
In some ways, the kids help me cope with the cancer. Kids live day by day, and they can’t understand the severity of something like this enigmatic disease. They don’t pause their lives because something is happening to mommy. I don’t have time to fixate on my diagnosis because I have a family to raise.
The kids also help me focus on what’s important. At the age my kids are, you have to teach them by doing something. It forces you to be present, to be intentional. You want your kids to remember these experiences; it feels like you’re leaving your legacy. I joke that late stage cancer was a very drastic way to learn this lesson.
This year, both of my kids’ birthday fell on a Wednesday, my usual chemo day. My son was upset that I had to do chemo on his birthday and as a pre-emptive measure, my daughter told me the best birthday present from me would be not to have chemo on her birthday. After some wrangling with my oncologist, I was able to move my chemo to Thursday instead. On the afternoon of her birthday, I suddenly started having gastrointestinal issues, hot flashes, a fever and cold sweats. I felt too weak to lift my throbbing head. I was so miserable, I was forced into bed and couldn’t eat.
The next day, when I arrived at chemo after my acupuncture session, the nurse took my temperature and blood pressure; I had a fever of 104 and my blood pressure was dangerously low. She said I couldn’t do chemo at that temperature and that I needed to take more tests because I probably had an infection. Had my daughter not requested the change, I would've gone ahead with the chemo because the symptoms I had only came up in the late afternoon, which means my medical team and I would've thought this was chemo side effects and given the infection more time to wreak havoc. I credit my daughter for saving my life; I don’t want to be another unfortunate patient who died from “complications from lung cancer.”
Recently, my daughter was at camp and one of her counselors texted me, offering to babysit for me whenever I needed it. I asked my daughter what she told her counselor and she said, “I told her you were sick and you have the thing. The C word.” Even though we have never been taboo about the word “cancer,” they’re taught or just know that they shouldn’t talk about it or that we need to keep it secret.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about how death is such a taboo topic in our society. It’s something we all want to avoid, but we all know it’s going to happen to us someday. Cancer shifts your relationship with death; you have to face it and not be so fearful. My son asks me questions like, “Are you going to die?” and “Who is going to take care of us when you’re gone?” I try to be as open and honest as possible, explaining that we all die at some point, but for now, I’m still here and we need to live day by day.
I’m still accepting my diagnosis. Some days, I’m crying like a baby. I think why me! But then I think why not me? I look at it as changing from a ‘woe is me’ attitude to ‘whoa, it’s me!’ Cancer is going to affect 1 in 2 people, so why not me? I try to stay hopeful. Sometimes, it’s as if I hear this decree: "Then the Lord said, 'Angie, I am going to give you all of your heart’s desires—everything you have dreamt of, but you will be diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer while attaining them.”’ So for now, I focus on my faith, the science, the long-term survivor stories, and my kids, and it helps me stay positive.
Want to hear more from Angie about balancing motherhood and cancer? Listen to her podcast Mommy Had A little Cancer.
- Angie Brice Hessbruegge's Living with Two Types of Cancer
- The Importance of Community for Lung Cancer Survivors
- Resource Highlight: Ina®️, The Intelligent Nutrition Assistant
Angie Brice Hessbruegge is a bona fide expatriate. Born in Haiti, she moved to New York at six, then off to Tufts University in Massachusetts for a BA in International Relations and Spanish, and finally across the Atlantic for her MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from Kings College London.
Both Angie and her husband have worked for the United Nations and this resulted in her having lived and taught extensively in Europe, Latin America, and the USA. She has traveled to over 70 countries (pre-pandemic) and speaks five languages.
In May 2019, Angie Brice Hessbruegge’s life would forever be changed when at age 37 and as a non-smoker, doctors diagnosed her with stage 4 lung cancer. Cancer affects not just the afflicted person but their whole family. This is why Angie joined forces with her good friend and fellow ‘cancer mama’ Karlee to create their podcast. Together they are 2 busy moms, with 2 active kids each, living in 2 separate countries and diagnosed with 2 different cancers: lung and breast. Join them on their cancer healing journeys while raising kids in an expat world.
Follow their Instagram: @MommyHadALittleCancer