Learning that your child has cancer is a mother’s worst nightmare realised. It turns your life upside down and puts your strength, resilience and resolve to the ultimate test.
It’s the devastating reality that Mandi faced when doctors diagnosed her 5-month-old daughter Kyra with Neuroblastoma Stage 4S cancer on 15 January 2018.
“When your child is diagnosed, it literally feels like your whole world comes crumbling down. It drains the life out of you. That’s when you face the question: how are we going to move this mountain?”
Without many resources about how to become a strong oncology parent or how to cope with this devastating diagnosis, parents often feel shocked and overwhelmed.
A coping mechanism
“Parents invariably put their own needs on hold and focus only on their child. But it is very important to take time for yourself to replenish and restore the strength and energy you need to care for your child,” explains Mandi.
“Accept that there is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening to your child, and know that it is not your fault. You simply need to keep the faith and remain strong for your child. No matter what your child goes through, they need mommy to be okay. That’s why you owe it to your child and you to take care of yourself.”
Yet many onco moms grapple with feelings of guilt when they take time away from their child’s bedside to rest or exercise.
“Understand that this is not selfish! Children sense when their parents are stressed. These children deserve their parents to be honest and calm to help them cope with this new normal. This is not easy but as a parent, you need to find the strength to cope with this devastating situation, which starts with taking care of yourself.”
As an avid runner for over 17 years, Mandi defaulted back to the exercise she enjoyed most.
“When I started running in grade 11, I had no idea what running would mean to me someday. Following Kyra’s diagnosis, I decided to keep running as a coping mechanism – it’s what kept my world from crumbling around me.”
Running has helped Mandi support Kyra through her treatments over the last 3 years. “Running now has a new meaning to me. It’s also a time when I talk to God. Sometimes I stop and cry my heart out because I don’t want to cry in front of Kyra. I don’t want her to see that mommy is heartbroken about everything that has happened to her.”
But her decision hasn’t come without criticism. “A few people – friends and family – judged me because I continued running after Kyra’s diagnosis, but until you find yourself in this situation, it is hard to understand why maintaining your health and fitness is not selfish.”
Ultimately, a fit onco mom is a strong, resilient pillar of support for her child. It is a sentiment shared and espoused by Kyra’s doctor, Dr. Jan Du Plessis, Head of the Clinical Paediatric Oncology Unit at the Universitas Academic Hospital in Bloemfontein.
“From the start, Dr du Plessis advised me to keep exercising as it will keep me sane. This is important because spending days on end in hospital can take a toll on your mental health, and your child does not need negativity or a stressed and sad mommy. They need a happy, positive mommy because that makes them happy.”
Finding a way
Between her fiancée, the supportive oncology nurses in hospital, and her parents, Mandi finds time to head out for a run, even when Kyra is in hospital. “I don’t think these people will ever know how much their support means to me.”
Mandi even ran up and down the hospital’s stairs when she had no other option. She subsequently added a sandbag to her stair sessions for a serious workout.
“I now keep an ab wheel and resistance bands with me, which I use to exercise while Kyra sleeps and on those nights when I can’t get to sleep. I also do spinning or strength training when I can’t get out for a run while we’re at home.”
Mandi says regular exercise makes her a better onco mom because she has more energy, she is more positive, and it keeps her healthy.
“Running has been part of my life for so long and it has helped me cope since my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. I don’t think I will ever stop running.”
Dr du Plessis adds that exercise improves your mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.
This helps to keep you calm, which is important because your child picks up on your mood and tone of voice.
“It is therefore important to find ways to relax and lower your stress. Some parents exercise, do yoga or other types of exercise. Others are refreshed by being outdoors and combining this with exercise is a bonus. Whatever methods work, it is important to find a method that feels right to you.”
A break from the norm
Trips to the gym also became an outing for both mom and daughter.
“I remember driving home from the gym after our first visit. I looked into the rearview mirror and saw Kyra laughing. Even though I was the one who got the exercise session, she needed the experience most after spending so much time recovering at home. It filled me with joy to see her happy.”
These shared experiences have also taught Kyra important lessons about the value and benefit of regular exercise and physical activity.
“Kyra now exercises with me when she can. She loves doing squats, lunges and sit ups. She is so adorable when she works out. And I didn’t teach her how to do it, she simply observed and watched while I exercised.”
Setting this example for your children is important, believes Mandi.
Onco mom fuel
But exercise alone won’t cut it. Your diet is also very important to help maintain your health and sustain your energy levels.
“After Kyra was diagnosed, I didn’t want to eat and I lost weight, which didn’t look healthy. Both my mom and Dr du Plessis impressed on me the importance of eating well to look after myself so that I can look after Kyra and be strong for her.”
That’s when Mandi realised that an important part of focusing on your child and the road ahead is to focus on yourself.
“Your child can’t do this without a strong and healthy parent. If your nutrition is not on point, you will feel sluggish, have no energy and will start feeling depressed.”
It can prove challenging to maintain a healthful eating plan while spending most of your time in hospital, but Mandi found that regular food prep and opting for healthier options in the hospital canteen, like a salad, helped nourish her body and gave her the energy and strength she needed.
Mandi also incorporates supplements into her nutrition plan to make healthy eating more convenient. And she gets an extra energy boost from products like USN PhedraCut and USN Lipo X Gold.
“I absolutely love it. It gives me an energy boost so I can push myself and challenge myself and the rest of the day. After training, I make a shake using USN Diet Whey Iso-Lean. I usually throw in a banana or strawberries and some plain yoghurt for a quick yet healthy meal.”
Dr du Plessis and Mandi also share a USN Trust bar on occasion, especially the double chocolate flavour. “It is absolutely delicious and helps with those cravings. Even Kyra had a few of them.”
Fitness with purpose
Mandi now intends to run the virtual Comrades on 13 June 2021 to raise awareness for childhood cancer.
“I want to help other onco moms navigate this journey. The most important message I have for them is that this is not an easy journey. That is why it is very important to look after yourself, so find time to exercise, sleep and eat healthy. And get your feelings out. Write or draw or choose another way to express your thoughts and feelings.”
Dr du Plessis also shares some valuable advice: “Take each day at a time, don’t overthink, don’t plan ahead, take it treatment by treatment, and don’t set yourself expectations.”
As Mandi continues to travel the path to recovery with Kyra, she wants to her daughter to know how proud her mommy is of her beautiful princess.
“Through everything you stayed strong, you kept on smiling and laughing. Thank you for keeping me strong, and teaching me how to be strong. Thank you for showing me how to stay faithful and never doubt God’s promises. Thank you for comforting me when I needed it. Mommy loves you so much. Keep on shining your beautiful light wherever you go. You are my hero!”
Author: Pedro van Gaalen
When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.