Why a Mom of 2 with Terminal Cancer Quit Her Job, Sold Her House to Focus on Kids: 'They Were the Best Medicine'
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Name: Renee Kaiman
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Occupation: Not working due to medical diagnosis
Family situation: I’ve been married to my husband for 10 years. We share a daughter, 8, and a son, 6. I quit my job once I was diagnosed with terminal cancer, so I stay home with them.
Parenting “philosophy” in a sentence: Support and love your kids so they can become the best people possible.
What was your journey to having the family life you have today?
I met my husband when I was 23. We dated for four and a half years before getting married on August 20, 2009. On the day of our wedding, it was gorgeous and sunny out. But right after our ceremony had ended, a torrential downpour started and there was a tornado that hit that night. But once the rain stopped, there was the most beautiful rainbow outside.
Looking back at everything we’ve been through, I think the universe was trying to tell us something — that we were going to go through a lot but at the end, we’d get to have a beautiful rainbow.
Our daughter was born three days before our second wedding anniversary. Exactly 23 months later, we welcomed our son. Then in January 2015, I found a lump in my left breast.
I chalked it up to residual milk after having stopped breastfeeding my children, who were three and one at the time. But by the next month, the lump was still there. No one in my immediate family has had breast cancer, but I still had this nagging feeling to get it checked out.
After the initial examination, the doctor looked at me and said, “Would you like me to do your other breast?” I looked at her and I said, “Are you asking me if I should or are you telling me I should?” She said, “I’ll be right back,” and then I knew something was wrong.
On Friday, March 13, 2015, I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. I was 33 years old.
Over the next nine months, I did six rounds of chemotherapy. I had a double mastectomy, followed by 25 rounds of radiation. When that was all done, I was put on hormone therapy and was told I would be on it for 5 to 10 years. At that point, my oncologist said, “Go and live your life. You’re good to go,” but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.
When you’re in the hospital several times a week and there’s always someone looking after you, checking your blood, answering your questions, you feel really safe. Then you’re discharged and all of a sudden you’re like, “Whoa, I don’t understand. How do I live my life? Where do I pick up the pieces? Who am I?” You see life through a very different lens.
After some time, I started to move forward. I was able to pick my kids up from school and I got a new job, but by summer of 2017, I started to feel pain in my lower back.
During a regular checkup I had the following September, I casually mentioned that over the summer, I had this pain in my lower back and side. It didn’t seem like a big deal because it came and went but I thought I would mention it. The oncologist said that we needed to do our due diligence, but it didn’t sound like my cancer spread because I would’ve felt the pain. Then two weeks later, I was told my cancer had spread to my bones. This was a huge blow.
At the time, I had just put my life back together and now this. I was told there were two medications I could try: one is a trial drug and one is an over-the-counter drug that’s like oral chemotherapy. We were talking about quality of life over quantity; you never want to hear those words from your physician. I had learned that 20 to 30 percent of people who have early-stage breast cancer can later contract metastatic terminal breast cancer. When I heard the news, my ears started ringing. My body was having a visceral reaction and I didn’t hear another word after that.
My kids were then four and six. My husband and I knew we had to tell them at some point but the time never felt right. Then one quiet morning, I told him, “You know what, we have to do this.” My therapist has been a great help and walked me through what type of questions they would most likely ask and how we should word it to them. It was really important to me that it was just the four of us when we told them. So, we sat down and we told them that I was on medication and sometimes the medicine stops working, and the cancer spreads. We told them that it spread to my bones. They asked me if I would die, and I said, “Well, not today, not tomorrow… Hopefully not for long time.” We told them that doctors are working on new medications that would hopefully keep the cancer away.
We were petrified to tell them because we knew in that moment that their lives were going to change so much. From then on, my husband and I have worked extremely hard to keep their lives as “normal” as possible. Privately though, we had to rethink everything. I thought, Chances are, I’m not going to live to 65, so we had to plan ahead.
We put our house up for sale and purchased a condo. My kids switched schools and I stopped working. We focused on spending time together. It’s obviously a little bit tricky when you go from two salaries down to one, but we made this bucket list that we’ve been working through. Thankfully, I’ve been feeling okay for two-and-a-half years so we’ve been able to cross a few things off our list.
We don’t talk about my health on a regular basis, but it definitely comes up in our lives. My son’s hockey team just did a fundraiser for breast cancer, so we talked about why it’s important to raise money and donate to charities, to help fund more medications and research to hopefully find a cure.
I have my timer set twice a day to take my pills, so when the kids hear my timer they know it’s time for me to take my meds. Small moments like these have become a part of our everyday lives, but since I’ve been feeling better, we try very consciously to live our lives to the fullest.
What’s your favorite thing about parenting?
I love seeing the world through my kids. It’s been amazing to watch my son learn how to read and my daughter learn how to master a new dance move. These moments are truly my favorite.
What’s the hardest part?
The hardest part is not knowing how long I have. I try not to think down the road because it can get me into a really dark place. Knowing I probably won’t be here for high school graduations or I won’t be able to teach my kids how to drive… I get really emotional. I think about all of these moments that I got to share with my mom, but chances are, I won’t be able to them with my kids.
What’s the best advice you can share with new parents?
I would tell them to find your people. It’s really amazing to be a part of a community that isn’t judgmental and accepts you as you are. Parents get judged a lot, so when you have people around that just get you, it’s really comforting.
What would you want your kids to say about you as a parent?
I would want them to say that I loved them so much — that they knew they were the best medicine. I want their memories to be filled with fun things we did together because one day, they will be filled with hospital visits and me not feeling well. It’s because of them that I am able to get up out of bed to start another day.