How Reading "Donna's Cancer Story" Has Changed Me As a Mother

I’ve been feeling a bit sluggish about writing lately.  One of my fellow ChicagoNow bloggers (or “bloggists” as my daughter refers to us), Mary Tyler Mom, has been chronicling her toddler daughter’s 31 month battle with cancer in recognition of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month (September).  Each day, Mary Tyler Mom has written about a month of her daughter’s (sweet Donna) battle against cancer.  This is not a suspense series; early on, we learned that the outcome was not good, and now that the month—and the daily posts—are almost over, they have gotten harder and harder to read knowing how it will end.

When I first started reading, I told a few people about the series and was largely met with responses to the effect of “I don’t think I could read that, it would be too sad.”  Well, yes.  Obviously it is sad, and I think we can all agree that no one reads about pediatric cancer because it’s fun.  Another fellow bloggist, Carrie Goldman, wrote a very compelling piece a couple weeks ago in her column (Portrait of an Adoption) about why you should read “Donna’s Cancer Story”.  Carrie said it more eloquently than I could, and I’m not all that persuasive.  Rather than try to write about music, which feels trivial, I decided to embrace the mood and write about how reading the series has impacted me (I’m egocentric that way).

I will say that not everyone could have pulled this off.  Mary Tyler Mom has managed to recount her daughter’s treatment in a way that expresses the emotions that accompanied the journey without inviting sympathy- I have really felt like I was on the journey with her and her husband (and partway through, her baby: Mary Tyler Son!).  I felt like I knew little Donna through her mother’s stories and the beautiful pictures she included.  The pace of this series also strengthened the impact more than reading it all at once would have.  Of course we have moved at warp speed compared to the actual journey, but only reading about a month at a time has allowed me to absorb more of the impact.

Why read about such a sad topic?  I certainly can’t begin to relate to what this family went through as my own four children have been freakishly healthy and injury free.  In the early days of September, I couldn’t articulate why I was reading, but I ultimately became so emotionally invested in the story that I now anxiously check the website throughout the morning to see if that day’s post is up yet.  And now, after reading 28 of the 31 installments, I can tell you why it has been good for me to read these sometimes difficult posts.

  1. I have more confidence that I could manage something devastating.  As I said, I’ve never been tested the way Mary Tyler Mom and her husband were, and there is a part of me that is just waiting for something awful to happen.  Mary Tyler Mom certainly didn’t sign up to have a child with cancer.  She has expressed a couple times that she is concerned with readers putting her on a pedestal, and maybe one of the best lessons from this is that she isn’t necessarily stronger than any other mother whose child evades something so devastating.  If you had asked her beforehand whether she could handle 2 ½ years of cancer treatment and the eventual loss of her child, she might not have been able to answer all that affirmatively.  But she had no choice, and throughout the ordeal, she did whatever she had to for her daughter, just as any mother would- including me. 
  2. I could get through something devastating and come out of it.  Last night I posted on the Facebook wall for the ChicagoNow group of bloggers, essentially expressing that my own blog topics feel very trivial compared to the power of what Mary Tyler Mom is writing about this month.  I received several confirmatory responses from other bloggists, but I also received a response from MTM herself.  She said she and her husband were laughing that after this month she’s going to be writing about nail polish, Us Magazine and “Bachelor Pad” reruns.  Seriously, laughing?  I can’t imagine ever being able to laugh again after enduring something like that, and maybe for a long time they didn’t.  But they are still alive and—at least sometimes—laughing.  I find that encouraging.
  3. I will do what makes me happy.  Along those same lines, I plan to stop feeling guilty about reading Us Weekly and watching the shows on Bravo that have no value but I somehow find entertaining.  Why shouldn’t I (dammit)?
  4. I will be more tolerant of others.  Mary Tyler Mom told several stories of outings and activities that may have been handled differently than they might have been had her daughter not been knee-deep in treatments.  I remember that once our pediatrician happened to be a speaker at a meeting for my kids’ religious education program.  He gave an example of being cut off in traffic and noting that maybe that person had just received bad news, so rather than reacting with anger he just let it go.  Using that logic, I would never want to be the person who was a jerk to the mother of a child rushing to the hospital after receiving bad news.  If they’re not hurting me or my family, I’ll let it go.
  5. I will appreciate my kids and try not to be too hard on them.  Many of the myriad comments I’ve read both on Mary Tyler Mom’s blog posts and her Facebook page have been from parents who vowed to hug their children a little tighter after reading about Donna that day.  Never take them for granted and never let them forget that you love them.
  6. My problems are not big.  However challenging I think my situation may be at a given time, reading about Donna puts things in perspective- fast.  Some things are important, others are not.  I will try to focus on the former.

And now I am realizing that I have written many very thinly disguised clichés.  “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”  “Walk a mile in her shoes.”  “Live each day as if it’s your last.”  Alas, these are all true. 

I’ve written this partly for my own benefit but also partly because I hope you might read it and be persuaded to read about Donna, too.  Reading about her journey has changed my outlook, and I think it may do the same for others.  Please consider reading and sharing (as Mary Tyler Mom says every day when she posts a new entry).

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