I Learned How to Prioritize Myself During My Daughter’s Cancer Battle

Moms deserve to have their bags fully packed too.
self-care through cancer treatment

It all happened so fast.

The day before, my two-year-old had a fever and seemed “off,” followed by the worst night of sleep of our lives, and then she woke up the next morning refusing to walk.

My husband happens to be a pediatric oncologist (talk about twisted) and pushed her doctor to send for some labs. He took her, had labs drawn, and a few hours later he took the call telling us our daughter’s labs showed signs of leukemia and that we needed to get her to the hospital. 

I’m supposed to tell you time stood still. But I’m a mom. So instead, all the bags needed to be packed, the favorite stuffy needed to be located, emergency snacks needed to be loaded up and childcare needed to be secured for my other child. 

And let me tell you, we got to the hospital and my daughter had everything she needed. Everything. You know what I had? A lint roller. Not a toothbrush or socks or chapstick or anything remotely necessary at that time. But I packed the lint roller. 

This seems to be the perfect metaphor for how life went for the months following.

We spent a few weeks in the hospital surviving on whatever snacks would fit in a Rubbermaid tub that slid underneath the couch/bed, food dropped off by friends and DoorDash. I was sleeping on a mattress skinnier than a twin that squeaked every time I rolled over. Forget that sleeping in a hospital is hard enough: the beeping, the interruptions, the lack of privacy—who changes the trash out at 10 p.m.?! 

Add to that having zero routines, no real opportunities for movement and constant stress. My only saving grace was our trips to the garden for some fresh air and the 15 minutes of silence I would get driving between home and the hospital.

It is not at all surprising that I was not prioritizing myself or my needs during this time. 

All my energy and focus were directed toward my daughter and getting her well. It was all-consuming. Trying to remember what lab values meant, what acronyms and abbreviations stood for, when her next round of meds were due, who was watching my son at home—and did we have groceries? I had to buy a special Bluetooth toothbrush just so I could remember whether or not I had brushed my teeth because I had slipped so far down the priority list that was bouncing around in my brain.

When I was at the hospital it gave me an excuse to not focus on myself. When I was at home I was so convinced my only priority needed to be my other child. I was being a good mom by giving every ounce of myself to my kids. This left exactly zero space, time or energy for me. I was keeping it together for everyone else, but barely.

After months of carrying on with this mentality, I could feel my insides screaming.

I had zero energy, I felt like crap all the time and I had weird physical symptoms like headaches, random spotting, stomach pain, etc. I have zero doubt this was the stress living inside my body. It was my humanity begging to be paid attention to. It was all the trauma just trying to be felt and heard and understood.

My family was living in a constant state of fragility. There were no promises. I remember driving home from the hospital one day and glancing in the rearview mirror to see my daughter happily playing with her favorite stuffy in her car seat. She showed no signs of the stress she had just endured that day. I found myself thinking, “If she beats this, what will be left of me to celebrate that with her?” I had a horrible sinking feeling in my gut. 

I knew that the person who was going to come out of this was not the person who was there in the beginning, nor the person I wanted to be in the end. And, while trauma and grief will always change us, they weren’t just changing me. They were swallowing me whole. That’s the really stark realization that I found myself in and what became my motivator for making changes. 

This was not some massive lifestyle shift or transformation. It mostly looked like pausing. 

When my husband asked me what time I wanted to tag out at the hospital I would pause long enough to decide whether my mental health would be better if I had an extra few hours at home or if I wanted to be at the hospital for rounds. Then I actually asked for what I needed! 

When I was feeling rushed to get to the hospital or get my child to school I would pause just long enough to eat some breakfast even if it was an RX bar on my way out the door.

When someone asked how I was doing I would pause, and then answer them as honestly as I could. 

When friends asked what we wanted for a meal I would pause and ask for meals that not only sounded good but that were filling and well-rounded. 

When I got home from the hospital and just really wanted to curl up in a dark room I would pause and ask myself what I actually needed. It was almost always some sunshine and a walk with my son.

When we had big appointments coming up and I could feel my anxiety getting the best of me I would let my husband know I needed to find one hour to hide out by myself so that I could pause, work through my emotions, and be ready to be there for my daughter when she needed me.

Once I committed to myself and realigned my priorities everything shifted.

I was able to get out of my own way and find a therapist to help me sort through all the feelings and emotions in my head and body.

I was sleeping better and waking up refreshed. I had the energy to do things and be engaged. Not immediately, of course, but after a week or two.

I was eating better so I didn’t feel awful all the time.

I was less foggy and more in tune with what was happening around me.

I was handling the stress better.

I was hearing people the first time they said something to me and not having to constantly ask for clarification. 

I was communicating better with my spouse and feeling even more supported and part of a team.

I was able to allow more space for my kids and everything they were feeling and experiencing at the time too.

It was still insanely difficult and there were days when the reality of what we were facing got the best of me. There were plenty of nights that still ended with a spoon, Ben and Jerry’s, and Gilmore Girls reruns.

But I had so much more choice to opt into that instead of dissociating and functioning on autopilot to survive.

When our reality came crashing down the day she was diagnosed I remember looking in the mirror at one point, tears streaming down my face, and thinking “I don’t know how I am ever going to make it through this.”

And I meant that. It felt impossible. That feeling didn’t go away and I operated in survival mode for many months. My people had what they needed, felt supported and were all ok. But I was slowly dissolving and fading away. 

I am not someone who will ever try to paint my daughter’s diagnosis as a blessing in disguise, but I will say that it taught me that even in the hardest, darkest, most overwhelming of times taking care of myself is not negotiable anymore.

The version of me who was looking in the mirror that day did not make it through this.

A new, braver, more grounded version came out the other side and it was only because I made the active choice to start choosing me.

As moms we know we “can’t pour from an empty cup,” and we need to “put our oxygen mask on first.” It’s easy to roll our eyes or smile and nod along when we hear this. I lived this firsthand.

My ability to look at my daughter with clear eyes and tell her I was there for her only grew when I started taking care of me.

At the end of the day we deserve to have our bags fully packed too- nobody is going to get through this life with just a lint roller.


  • Amber Willis

    Amber Willis is a freelance writer and content creator who specializes in helping female entrepreneurs find their voice and share their story. She also runs her own blog where she shares about parenting, her freelance experience, and how she's working towards building her biggest, bravest life. When she's not writing she's either reheating her coffee, walking her dog, or dancing it out with her two kids.

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