I’m A Mom of Five, and I Have Cancer — During a Pandemic. Here’s My Journey.

family dinner

On homeschooling, sewing tutus, and dealing with melanoma.

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of us — but it has posed particular challenges for the cancer community. So, I’ve teamed up with Merck* for a new series, Cancer During COVID-19, to tell these important stories. Today, we’re sharing the story of Janet Dagenais, a 46-year-old mom whose whole family is along for her journey. This article is supported by Merck.*

I’ve always felt lucky in the family department. I have a wonderful relationship with my five kids. Add in my amazing husband Jason and our two dogs — and that makes for a very busy house. Little did I know that our bustling household would one day be dealing with a global pandemic. Or that I’d be going through cancer treatments during it.

In March 2019, I found a lump, the size of a large egg in my left groin. I went through the waiting game of blood tests and ultrasounds. I had lost my father in 2011 to Lymphoma, and my children kept flashing through my head. When my doctor finally called me with the results, I was sure she’d say I had that. Instead, she told me I have a type of cancer called melanoma.

All I heard was “cancer.”

You never want to hear the “C” word, so I cried and cried. The reality of it all really shook me. I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about my kids — my daughters Jaylin, 16, and Janelle, 13; my bonus daughter (that’s what I call my stepdaughter) Mackenzie, 16; and my little guys Xavier, 5, and Oakley, just 3. I knew what it was like to lose a parent — I didn’t want them to go through that, too.

I told my teens Jaylin and Janelle first. I cried and couldn’t speak the words, so Jason told them as we sat on the couch together. They started to cry, and I could see the fear of losing me in their eyes. I had to be strong and tell them that no matter what, I would never give up. We’ve always been very honest with each other, and when appropriate, I’ve made it a point to speak to them like adults and not sugar coat things. They were strong — just worried about me. But I couldn’t tell my little guys Xavier and Oakley. All they knew was that suddenly Mommy had to go to the doctor more often. And that’s all I felt they needed to know.

Then COVID-19 hit. It came on so fast. As an immunocompromised person, I was so afraid. I thought that if cancer didn’t kill me, COVID-19 definitely would.

My family and I went into lockdown pretty early on. Each of the kids had to be homeschooled — including my five-year-old Xavier, who has Autism. From answering grade 11 math questions to having 12 ZOOM calls a week for my boys, it has been extremely busy. As much as I love spending this time with my kids, I’m afraid of not keeping them up to speed with their education. I have very little energy and am exhausted most days. I feel obligated to keep Xavier on top of his learning so he can progress into a typical school next year. But on a positive side, there are moments that all of this schooling is a welcome distraction from my diagnosis.

For my safety, we don’t socialize with others. This has had more impact on my older girls — imagine not being able to see your friends as a teen? But they never complain. They know they’re keeping Mom safe. And we’ve adapted. Jaylin, my oldest, hasn’t seen her boyfriend — not even for their third anniversary. But it’s been sweet to watch the way he’s been there for her, like leaving coffee for her on our porch. That was such a nice surprise for her and she felt so loved — although also she felt weird that she couldn’t give him a hug after.

The only time I leave the house is to get my blood drawn at the doctor’s — or to go to the hospital for my treatments.

Treatment is a whole new world now. All the usual protocols changed. These days I have to go through two screenings. At the hospital entrance, nurses in masks, shields and gowns take my temperature, give me hand sanitizer, and ensure my mask is on correctly. Next I’m directed to another desk, where I’m asked questions about symptoms and potential exposure. After that, I get an approved screening tag that I then need to hand to the receptionist as I check in for treatment.

I used to always bring my daughters or my husband with me to the hospital… one time, I even snuck in a group of three friends! (The nurses were so nice to let that slide.) But now, I have to walk through the empty halls — usually bustling with patients and visitors — totally alone. And I’m alone during my treatments. The silence has a ring to it. It feels empty and It’s scary.

I’ve been through so many emotions. Sometimes I’m so angry with COVID-19, because it’s hard enough to go to cancer treatment. Other times, I can’t stop thinking about the future, being with my family, the recovery and my quality of life going forward. I do my best to stay positive. But with isolation of lockdown, the noise of these concerns can often be overwhelming. The thoughts don’t go away, and it’s even harder when you go by yourself. I cry on my way to the hospital, and I cry when I’m there. I am alone during treatment — and I feel alone.

I’ve struggled with depression since my father passed away and having cancer during a pandemic has only amplified that. But I know that really, even though I feel alone, I’m not actually alone. I have my husband. I have my kids. I have my support system.

My final treatment is coming up, and my family and I have a great plan: I’ll be requesting a window seat, and they’re going to watch from outside. They’ll be “with me.” My girls will be in tutus that I’m making for them, and the whole family will be in white T-shirts with a big black melanoma ribbon. I can already picture it! As for me, I will be wearing a shirt that says, “I win,” and is signed by “Wonder Woman.” I hope to ring the bell at the end of treatment while looking at my family out the window.

I’m grateful that, despite the horror of the pandemic and the added stress of cancer at this time, I’ve been given this quarantine time with my kids. I’ve been able to teach my older kids self-sufficiency skills — like chores, proper diet and food prep, gardening and baking — that we might otherwise not have had the time for. With Xavier, it’s been great to have the opportunity to see him in a classroom setting and have a newfound understanding of what he goes through. Oakley is only three, but man, is he a spirited child. We fondly refer to him as our “two-foot tornado.” COVID-19 has in a way, helped us create more family memories together — a plus side of being forced to stay home.

Through it all, I’ve been so grateful to have my daughters. They are my best friends. They support me every way they can, whether it’s helping with dinners, babysitting their little brothers, or giving me a shoulder to cry on. They are there for me without question.

My oldest daughter Jaylin has always wanted to be in the medical field, but now, she’s been inspired to steer towards oncology. She’s told me that she wants to help people because she sees the pain I’m going through with cancer. She wants to assist and comfort them. She wants to assure them that it’s okay. And she realizes this is a whole family event — cancer doesn’t just affect the patient, but everyone who loves them.

This means the world to me, because regardless of what she chooses to be when she grows up, I know I’m doing something right: I’m raising a decent human being.

That’s what keeps me hopeful: My kids. I cannot be sad every single day, because I have to be present for them. I just have to believe in my heart that I’m here for a reason, and that my kids need me. Even on the darkest days, I know that I have to push through and be there for my kids — and myself. I cry all the time… but most of the time now, they’re good tears.

**(Merck & Co., Kenilworth, NJ; MSD outside of the U.S. and Canada)

This originally appeared on Medium.