Author Tara Rolle. Photo courtesy of Tara Rolle

IN 2012 I ADOPTED MY BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER. For me, adoption manifested my longing and choice to be a mom. I was blessed with the opportunity to work with a local program that sought to place foster children into loving forever homes. Along with the active decision to become a mom came my relentless commitment to being engaged and fully present as a parent. Standing before that 5-year-old child, I promised to love her well, to parent her hard, and to build around her a world of safety, security and magic.

What I lacked in form I made up for with passion, surrounding my sunshine girl with a world as unblemished by the harsher realities of life as I could. For eight years my efforts were rewarded with a life free from illness, loss and the other unpleasantries that have since become characters in our family narrative.

In February 2020, after an onslaught of escalating symptoms, I was diagnosed with stage III/IV small cell neuroendocrine cervical cancer, an extremely rare and aggressive cancer. I was suddenly a 37-year-old thrust into the competing roles of cancer patient and single mom.

There is a poignant intensity about the rapid nature of high-stakes decision-making that a cancer diagnosis requires when you are a mom. Determining how much to tell my daughter about my diagnosis, my prognosis, my treatment plan. Weighing the pressure to continue to attend unprotected events and build special moments against the raw exhaustion that comes with concurrent chemo and radiation. And perhaps worst of all, graduating from treatment, blessed to be alive but with an aching worry that the illusion of security I had worked so hard to build for my daughter had suffered irreparable damage.

When treatment concluded, a new type of worry emerged. A sharp ache in the background that pervaded my efforts at an unscathed reentry into the land of the living. A background narrative, sometimes loud and sometimes dim, challenging every effort to simply return to life before cancer. Over time, I have come to name this “the white noise of survivorship.”  

As a cancer survivor, this noise of survivorship required a new level of grit and joyful perseverance. But that work was dwarfed by my new reality as a mom thrust into the complex landscape of survivorship parenting.

Let me clarify that life—and especially parenting—is no less joyful now than before cancer. Being a mom is as wonderful and challenging and exhilarating and exhausting as it ever was. Now, however, I find myself managing a new dynamic. A delicate balancing act between indulging in every moment as a final act of familial delight before recurrence and cultivating the boundaries and expectations necessary for the long haul of being a family. It is in the not knowing—the ache and worries about recurrence and the promise and joy of imagining watching my daughter grow—that the noise of survivorship parenting takes root. But it can be managed.

I have learned to remind myself that the best I can do is show up for my daughter at 100% for however many more moments I am privileged to have. I was always going to die, and the timeline was always unknown. Perhaps cancer reinforced for me the reality that no mom gets forever to love and grow her child, and that permits me to selfishly indulge and savor every moment. My advice? Put down the cellphone. Take vacation days. Laugh too loud. Cuddle too hard. And enjoy living, for however many wonderful and heartbreaking moments remain.

Want to read more about Tara’s experience with cancer survivorship? Her book, The White Noise of Survivorship, is available on Amazon.

Tara Rolle is an author and public speaker living in the Bay Area of California.

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