by Sarah E. McDonald

close up headshot Sarah E. McDonald with her daughter Rory
Rory (age 5) and me cuddling on our couch. I am in love.
Watch Sarah read this excerpt from her book

“Mommy. I keep all of my magic in my heart. Is that where you keep yours?”

I am sitting with my girl across my lap on the dense, cozy rug in front of our couch. It is mid-afternoon and I have picked her up early from her after school program so that she can have the just-Mommy-and-Rory time she had asked for this morning on our drive to school. She is now big enough that really only her head and her torso can rest on what she calls my “special place” – my lap. “Mommy. Let me sit in your special place,” she demands when we watch movies, when we are at dinner at friends’ houses, when she needs a little reassurance or to feel like my baby again. Sometimes, when I need her to feel like my baby again, I’ll pull her over to my lap – her long, gangly, six-year-old legs splayed out beside us. Those legs won’t fit as I lean over to grab and hold all the parts of her I can still gather in my arms as I cover her face with kisses.  

Twenty minutes earlier, this same yummy girl had been standing in front of me with crossed arms and a scowl on her face. She was demanding a ramekin of CheezIts® before she was forced to eat the healthy strawberries I had just cut up for her and she had stamped her foot to punctuate each word.

“We always eat a healthy snack first, Rory,” I reminded my stomping girl. “And I would love to hear you ask me kindly for the CheezIts® rather than yelling at me,” I said, trying to maintain an even voice.

“I! AM! ASKING! KINDLY!” she screeched before sticking her fingers in her ears to block out anything else I might say.

I have been reading all of the child-rearing blogs and books recommended to me while Geoff and I both try to lovingly ride out the roller coaster of BIG feelings that is six. Dr. Laura instructs me that the child acts out because she feels disconnected from me. What I need to do is “establish connection” with her and the grumpy little troll standing in front of me will transform into the love bug I know she can be.

I ask if I can give her a hug. I receive a resounding “No!” and a half-hearted push. After several more attempts and more screeching, my girl finally gives in and lets me hold her. We slowly slump onto the floor and into a tangle of arms and legs.

I rock back and forth with my girl on the rug. She is now cooing at me and making baby sounds. The sun is streaming into our living room and we are bathed in its light. It is one of those enchanted moments in parenting when the world slows for you and your child and you are simply, utterly in love with this small human and her wondrous being.  

 “Mommy. I keep all of my magic in my heart. Is that where you keep yours?” 

I cannot believe this beautiful thing she has just uttered. Truly, she is magical. I am so very lucky, I tell myself for the umpteenth time.

It might not have been like this. In one alternate reality, I was unable to conceive a child. In another alternate reality, I had never married. And in those infinite other realities, there had been the very real possibility that I wasn’t going to – and didn’t – survive my battle with cancer. 

In 2012, I was a newly married, forty-something, tech executive undergoing fertility treatments when I was diagnosed with two unrelated, or primary source, types of cancer. “Primary source” means each originated at its own site in my body and was not a spread (metastasis) of the other. Each cancer was intent on, and capable of, killing me on its very own. My prognosis was unclear and I was told that carrying a child was off the table. I felt as if everything in my life had suddenly been taken away from me. 

Over the course of one year, I underwent chemo, radiation, and multiple surgeries. I lost my hair and my sense of taste. But against what felt often like impossible odds of cancer statistics – I survived. And later, I carried a baby. My life that had been lost amidst those alternate realities was once again found. Who could have imagined it would be like this? 

The concept for this book started with the blog I wrote during that year. I loved writing the blog. It allowed me to explore the sometimes ridiculous stories of physical indignities and personal struggle that a year of fighting cancer brings. And while I certainly experienced terror and pain that year, I also found a whole bunch of stuff to laugh about. In the end, finding the humor in my physical indignities actually helped me get through the larger experience. 

I’ve read a number of cancer memoirs, beautifully written with clarity driven by the knowledge that life is precious and short; perhaps the most touching ones published posthumously. I loved diving into their stories and reading the visceral descriptions of the terror they felt (that I felt) when they learned they had cancer. Our shared experience made me feel less alone. But what was missing from these stories is the humor I found from the physical indignities of cancer treatment – the absolute ridiculousness you are (read: I was) willing to endure to claw your life back. I decided I needed to add my stories of hope, humility, and yes, humor to the mix. If my stories can help others who are finding their way on their cancer journey maybe laugh, then the ten (what?!?) years spent writing these stories down will have been worth it.  

Since my diagnoses my husband Geoff and I have taken a very open approach to discussing my cancer – not hesitating to share my stories in detail if people are newly diagnosed or simply curious. It is our opinion that cancer (and even death) becomes less scary when we can talk openly about it. That said, Geoff and I haven’t known exactly when it was “appropriate” to share with a child that her Mommy had cancer. She knows her grandfather died from cancer. One warm Saturday afternoon we had friends over for cocktails and these dear friends asked about my cancer status (as loving friends regularly do) within earshot of Rory. Rory perked up and rushed over to me.

“Mommy. You had cancer?” Her little eyes searched mine as I thought about how I would answer this question. I wrapped my arms around my little human.  

“Yes, sweetie. I did. But the doctors used medicine to make me better and I don’t have cancer any longer. You don’t need to worry.”

“Ok, Mommy – but I’m keeping my eye on you so you don’t die! And I mean BOTH eyes, Mommy!”