In 2011, when my son Griffin was 20 months old, he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive type of muscle cancer that grew behind his eye. His diagnosis rocked our little boat of a family and I was suddenly clutching the sides, trying not to be thrown overboard.

Griffin endured 48 weeks of chemo treatments, 25 radiation treatments, countless scans, MRIs, transfusions and pokes—more than any toddler should ever experience. As a mother, I had the unique perspective of watching my child go through the toughest battle of his life. I also had to give him medicine that simultaneously made him sick while making him better. I rode a rollercoaster of emotions—from extreme depression, stress and PTSD, to conquering cancer and coming out the other side.

This is what I learned from our life-altering journey:

1. Cancer sucks

There is no sugar coating the truth: cancer is not fun. It’s a sneaky monster that you generally can’t see, can’t feel and often can’t find. It grows secretly, robbing you of your health and sanity.

2. Each path is different

Some people will take their own experiences and assume they can relate to you. They can’t. You can’t walk in my cancer battle shoes and you can’t experience my pain, but that doesn’t mean you can’t hold my hand along the way.

3. You are stronger than you think

One day, you’re a normal office professional, packing lunches and yakking by the watercooler. The next day, you’re thrown into a medical world filled with NG tubes, feeding pumps, medications and words you can’t pronounce or even attempt to spell. You’re suddenly a nurse, a PSW, a doctor and a caregiver; as well as a clown, chief distractor and CEO of fun while in the hospital. I have an emergency kit in my car. I can change a feeding tube with one hand, replace bandages in the dark and draw blood without inducing tears (from either of us). These are the roles we never ask for and skills we never wanted to learn. 

“I can change a feeding tube with one hand, replace bandages in the dark and draw blow without inducing tears (from either of us).”

4. You will not be the same person after cancer

I like to think that I haven’t changed, but that would be a lie. I’ve lost my innocence, for sure. I’ve faced my child’s mortality and then pondered my own. I’ve watched children waste away to nothing. I’ve watched cancer rip families and marriages apart. I’ve put on a lead bib as my baby gets radiated, over and over and over again. I’m not the same person I once was. But because I’ve seen the dark side, I hang on tight to the bright.

5. You have the power to give back

Now that Griffin is cancer-free, we’ve dedicated our lives to returning some of the kindness that so many showed us. We work with several different charities on fundraising efforts to raise the quality of life for each child diagnosed with cancer, hopefully making each journey just a little bit better.

My husband and I have started a local parents support group to help families like ours. We’ve also started a “Courage Capes” program with our local Ronald McDonald House. Every child that stays at RMH gets a courage cape to highlight his or her bravery.

The ability to give back is part of my healing process and is as much for me as it is for the people we help.

I’ve learned that you don’t have to be rich to give back—you just need to have a little bit of time and a big heart.

6. Cancer does have some blessings

Because of cancer, our family grew stronger as the disease weakened. Because of cancer, we’ve gained the close friendships of other cancer families that I now consider as close as family. Because of cancer, I don’t take anything for granted; I wake up each morning thankful for the day I had yesterday with my child and look forward to the next. Because of cancer I will never be the woman, daughter, wife or mother that I was before. There is no “going back to normal,” because there is a new normal now. It’s stronger, bigger and tougher than cancer.