May Executive Director Dish: Once a Cancer Mom, Always a Cancer Mom

Defining Support, The Cancer Warrior Mom Series is a collection of thoughts from many incredible Cancer Moms and how they define support. 

“They pretend to be strong, but they cry a river of tears daily. They wish they could take the pain away from their baby and suffer in their place! They watch helplessly as disease and poisons ravage their child’s body. They hold their child’s hand as they vomit…for the 5th time this morning (its a better day!). They spend more time in the hospital (which is 3 hrs away from home ) than at home and are on a first name basis with 90% of the staff. They sign consents for their child to be poked and cut in search of the cure. They collect hair from their little one’s pillow and place it in a bag..for the 3rd time. They miss their old friends who long ago stopped calling (because they didn’t know what to say) but find comfort from their new friends who all have kids going through the same nightmare. They see the pitty in others eyes when they look at their child… The look that says, “I’m sorry, but I’m so glad it’s not me”. They hear EVERYDAY how strong they are, and how other people could not handle what they live through, but the truth is, they don’t have a choice (and they don’t feel strong at all). They have been told horrible things, by well-meaning people, who criticize them for things they could never understand. They watch their child’s friends die and know the reality that it COULD happen to them. They have been to 6 funerals this year, all children. They feel guilt when their child is doing well because so many of their friends are not. They look forward, yet dread the day the poison stops, knowing this is what is fighting the monster. They live with the fear that it could happen again, every minute of every day! They wish their child could go back to school, but not because they are ready for a break, but because ALL kids deserve to be kids! They watch as their child cried because other children (and adults) say hurtful things. They wear gloves while handling the poison that they feed to their child every night. They have to tell their child “no” when they want to play sports, play outside, go to school, go swimming or go to a friends house because their immune system is too weak and an infection could take their life. They allow doctors and nurses to do horrible things to their baby in search of a cure. They search for the reason “WHY” so that they can make some sense of this nightmare, and none is to be found. They miss their other children as they grow up without them (and the siblings are not allowed to stay at the hospital)…missing all the milestones and special occasions, while fighting for their sick child’s life….wishing they could tuck them in bed at night, but they haven’t been home in weeks or months. They don’t remember the last time they slept more than 2 hrs straight. All of this and more…all while bringing awareness and raising funds so YOUR child will never face this hell! THEY ARE THE PARENTS OF A CHILD FIGHTING CANCER! They need your help!”

Erin & Isabella, 2008

I remember reading this passage a Cancer Mom wrote when I was going through Isabella’s fight against cancer.  I posted it on my Facebook page and so many people thought I had written this so beautifully.  I’m sure it was because I was writing the truth every day about what our life was like and this sounds just like the hell I was living.  Truth is, it’s the life every cancer mom lives.  I have to say that I struggle daily with her being gone, but the one thing I don’t miss is the actual life of a cancer mom.  It’s the scariest life you will ever lead. I flash back to it quickly when I sit and talk with a Mom who has a child fighting.  The look in her eye is tired but thankful… it keeps me going at my job for sure.  

Often times as a Cancer Mom you just feel helpless.  You are shuffling between hospitals and medicines and your other kids and bills and a marriage, the thought of having time to do anything that brings awareness or funding to your child’s disease feels impossible.  It never failed… Isabella would always relapse right before an event.  And like every year, our supporters would rally around us and put on an amazing day and do all the things I couldn’t.  They allowed me to just be her Mom and focus on keeping her alive.  I was so thankful to all the people that were doing things to help her and kids like Isabella when I couldn’t.  

This is what ISF does today.  We are the feet on the street for the families that MUST remain focused.  They can’t scream from the rooftops about survivor rates and funding cures and bringing in the best doctors because each day they are just living in the moment… because that is the only way to survive.

So with May upon us, it brings our focus to these Cancer Moms as we approach Mother’s Day.  I can’t tell you how many Mother’s Day posts I wrote about treasuring every moment of the day.  Opening that Mother’s Day card from Isabella and the kids, hoping it wasn’t my last from her.  (I still have them all.)  We would go to breakfast and the kids would take turns sitting on my lap as I quietly said prayers that I would always have 3 children for Mother’s Day.  Unfortunately, for me and so many other Moms… Mother’s Day is spent putting on a brave face for our other kids – knowing the day will never be the same.

Erin & Isabella, 2005

ISF is putting a TON of energy into our May events.  We want to tell you the stories of these incredible Moms and we want to do all the things this month they wish they had the time to do.  We want to be their voices, reminding you all that the ONLY way we can make things better for their kids is to do something about it.  So we are going to ask you to come to our May events.  We are going to ask you to donate on behalf of these Moms this month.  Donate as it were YOUR child or someone you knew.  Set up to donate every month because you know it’s the right thing to do.  Show these Moms that we support them and we are behind them and promise we are going to do everything we can to bring the doctors and treatments to their kids so they can focus on what they need to do right now.  We are here behind them and this month, we need you to be too.  

-Isabella’s Mommy (Once a Cancer Mom, always a Cancer Mom)

**We are working during the month of May in honor of Cancer Moms everywhere, fighting for their kids. We want to show that ‘Cancer Messed With the Wrong Mom’ and we have their back while they do what they do best. Donate in honor of these incredible women, your donation to the Isabella Santos Foundation helps fund research so desperately needed for rare pediatric cancer patients. DONATE NOW

That’s What Moms Do…

Written by Erin Santos, Isabella’s Mom

For me, these are two of the pictures that most accurately describe what being a Mother to Isabella was like. My friend Angelo Merendino was in town and was taking pictures of us when we were unaware of it. Very rarely are Mom moments captured that aren’t posed. These were real moments. I knew in these pictures that we were at the end and every moment with her was heartbreaking. She didn’t know she was dying but I knew. She would crawl up on my lap and I would hold her, feeling her ribs and every bone in her body. But my expression would not change, my lip would not quiver and she would not know that I was slowly dying inside. I would just hold her and be her Mom until I couldn’t anymore. The thoughts that were running through my head were deafening but the words that came out of my mouth to her were differently entirely. I held it all in from her and just loved her and made sure she wasn’t scared.

That’s what moms do. They sacrifice themselves for you and would do anything to make you feel safe and loved – no matter what.

I can do Christmas now, I can do the day she died. But her birthday and Mother’s Day always get me because those are days about the two of us. She was never too busy on Mother’s Day. She would help organize flowers and gifts and be the first thing I saw when I would open my eyes in the morning.

I miss her like crazy and I’m so thankful I have Grant and Sophia to cuddle up with this morning. Being a Mom is the best job in the world.

True Definition of a Mother

She was amazing. We received the worst news of our life and she didn’t flinch. She took a leave of absence from work and moved her life into our home. She did all the unglamorous tasks. She changed diapers, she did dishes, she gave baths, she made dinner, she did laundry, and she stepped in when I had to step out. She also lived with Stuart and I during the most stressful time of our life. That task in itself was worthy of a medal.

She put her life on hold. She didn’t get paid. She CANCELED her own wedding, due to a relapse of Isabella’s.

She traveled with me to New York. She kept my mind busy while I had to wait for scan results. She raised Grant. She raised Sophia. She raised me.

She disciplined Isabella, which was a hard thing to do. She kept her in line and knew when to be her Grandma and when to be her Mom. She kept me in line and knew when to be my Mom and when to be my friend. No matter what Stuart and I were going through, she had my back. She would yell at him when I couldn’t and try to fix us when we were unfixable.

When Isabella would relapse, she would be my first call. She would talk me off a ledge and help me make arrangements. I would go to bed that night and wake up to a doorbell ring. There she would be standing on my front porch. She would drive through the night 12 hours to be there. I would break down when I saw her because she always knew what to do without asking.

She was as close as you could be without being right there. Which is a hard thing to explain. She wasn’t making the decisions but she was implementing them. She was giving medicine and catching vomit in buckets. She was rubbing backs and changing bandages, but she was never in the spotlight. She never wanted to be. She would just tell me over and over how we were making the right decisions and that we were strong and how proud she was of me but honestly she was right there along side us.

She took the lead on dangerous radiation treatments when Isabella relapsed in the brain. I was pregnant with Sophia and it was too dangerous for me to be around that amount of toxic radiation. So she stepped in and slept behind a lead wall, allowing her own body to be radiated so that mine wasn’t affected.

She was Isabella’s second Mom and Isabella knew that Grandma would take care of her. Isabella adored her and often times would want to be with her over me because they just had this connection. It wasn’t just Isabella either. She raised Grant. And if you see them together today, it’s a bond that is unlike anything you have ever seen. The love he has for her is close to that of a Mother and it should be. She was his Mom.

She was all I had when I felt like I had nothing. I could tell her anything – no matter how bad it was. Some days I was ready for Isabella to die and she is the only one I could say that to. She would hold me up when I was ready to fall and held my hand through everything. She is the only person that I allow to give me honest feedback in my life because she is the only person in my life that knows the true me. You also never realize how much you want your Mom to crawl in bed with you when you are sobbing until she does it. She never said anything. She just got in bed and let me cry on her.

And in the last week of Isabella’s life, it was painful for me to watch Isabella shut her out. No one was allowed to be with her except Stuart and I in the end. My mom had been there from the first day to that moment and Isabella put up a wall with her. My mom was forced to lay with her only when she was asleep. But she took every single minute she could. She once again took on the most unglamorous tasks like cooking corn casserole when Isabella craved it, only to watch her not eat it. “It’s okay,” she would say to me. “I’ll do anything she wants.” We even made her drive to get Grant the morning Isabella died. We should be shot for what we put her through.

I regret all the horrible things we made her do during those years. But if you ask her, it was the best gift we could have given her. It’s hard to put into words what people like her do for your life. Sometimes you are just given someone in your life that is a true blessing and you can’t imagine your life without them. I seem to shut out everyone in my life these days. But my Mom is the one person that will never see my wall. She is the person I strive to be in my life and what I get from her is the definition of a Mother’s love. I will never fully understand how she was able to give so much to us, or why she did it. But as I grow as a Mom, I start to see that I would do the exact same thing she did because the love you feel for your kids makes you do things you never thought were possible.

My Mom is the best person I have in my life. I love her for what she did for me, for Isabella and my family. She is the true definition of a Mother. I can only hope to be half the woman she is one day.