One of the unexpectedly difficult parts of having breast cancer is how clueless even well-intentioned people can be. A few months after New Jersey mom Jen Kraemer-Smith had her mastectomy, someone at a family gathering “kept asking me all these crazy questions - ‘Can I see the scar?’ ‘How do you feel when you don’t have a breast?’ ” Jen felt herself physically recoil: “I was so taken aback at the level of inappropriateness!”
Later, she vented to her dear friend Andrea Delbanco, who empathized but confessed that even she worried she might say the wrong thing. “We’re incredibly close and have all these shared experiences, but when it came to cancer, we struggled with how to talk about it,” says Jen. So the pair created a set of boxed cards called The Cancer Conversation on common topics like intrusive questions and paying for treatment. “I want my kids to know one day that their mom worked on something that could help people,” Jen says.
Her cancer collision occurred in 2012 when she was 38 and pregnant with her third child. Her ob/gyn was quick to assure her that the lump she felt was probably nothing, but Jen had a sonogram. “I couldn’t see the films, but I saw the guy who was handling them,” she says. “That look on his face? I knew it was cancer.” She was flooded by fear and sadness, quickly followed by a sense of resolve. “I thought, OK, people get through this.” Jen had a mastectomy and chemo in her second trimester, then radiation after her healthy daughter was born. Told that the chance of a recurrence was less than 15%, “I truly thought all that was behind me,” she says.
Two years later, however, she learned the disease had spread to her spine; if cancer affects distant systems, the condition is deemed metastatic, and is typically considered incurable. Jen was told that her treatments would be about managing cancer, not beating it - a fact that hit her hard during an early phone call with a doctor who said, “ ‘Don’t worry - I’ve seen women with metastatic breast cancer live as long as 10 years,’ like that was a long time!” she says. “I had this buzzing in my ears, thinking, I might not make it to 50?”
But as Jen processed the news over the next months, she knew that no matter how long she had, she didn’t want to feel paralyzed by fear or anger. “I have so much to be grateful for: my amazing husband, my kids, my friends, my family, my incredible oncologist,” says Jen. “If I spent every day worrying, what kind of life would I be having?”
The Cancer Conversation now has nine supplemental packs on topics like parenting, faith, sexuality and end-of-life decisions. Jen says that sitting in silence can be more comforting than forced optimism or sharing stories of other patients. “People think they’re being empathetic, but those stories can be hard to hear,” says Jen, who prefers to focus on her own treatment. For now, that means chemo twice a month and scans every few months.
Six years after her diagnosis, Jen feels good about the way she’s facing the future. She and her husband no longer daydream about what they’ll do “one day.” To mark their 20th anniversary, the whole family saw Solo: A Star Wars Story on a school night. “It doesn’t sound very romantic,” she says, “but we were all so, so happy. I put my daughter to bed in her clothes, she was so wiped out, and the next day we wrote notes explaining why the kids hadn’t done their homework. But it was an incredibly special day. Being with my family keeps me inspired and encouraged.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Good Housekeeping.
('You Might Also Like',)