This Metro Detroit warrior mom shares insights for anyone who has been impacted by cancer.
Hugging the kids the night before my surgery tore my heart out. No matter what you tell or don’t tell your kids, they know. They hear the soft whispers around them. They see your expressions and your tears. They each own a part of your heart. They know.
This is an excerpt from “My Lipstick Journey Through Cancer” by Anna Warner-Mayes.
Anna is a warrior mom of three, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and a cancer fighter. After reading her book, “My Lipstick Journey,” I knew I had to talk to her. Her story is inspiring, heartbreaking and full of insights. Anna was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer 12 years ago. What started off as being an “easy” cancer to treat wound up being just the beginning of her battle.
As life reminds us, nothing is certain. Anna’s cancer was more advanced than the doctors anticipated. In the last 12 years she’s been on an emotional roller coaster, experiencing moments of being cancer free — only to have it return with a vengeance. She has endured harsh treatments that left her completely depleted, all while raising three kids.
If battling cancer wasn’t enough, Anna endured her greatest challenge this last year when her 17-year-old son had a stroke. She stayed by his side in the hospital for eight weeks while he recovered. Anna talks about how this event was more challenging than any of her cancer battles.
I was curious to know how Anna navigated parenting while facing unsurmountable challenges. Anna reminded me that time is a gift, not just because she is someone living with cancer, but time is a gift to everyone. We talked about the idea of certainty and how she finds solace in the present moment. As she so beautifully states, love is a superpower.
Read more from Anna below.
In the last 12 years, what have you said to your children about your cancer diagnosis?
At the time of my first diagnosis my kids were young (5,7 and 10). Since I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which is considered one of the “easier” cancers in terms of treatment and prognosis, we decided not to say anything to them except that mommy had to go to the hospital for a couple of days. The word “cancer” was never mentioned. After the surgery, my prognosis wasn’t great and I had lost my voice completely because of a paralyzed vocal cord from surgery. We still didn’t mention cancer, but the environment of the house was definitely different. A year later when it came back we said that I was “sick” again but still did not mention cancer. When it came back a third time, they started asking questions — now at ages 8, 10 and 13 — questions like, “Should we learn sign language?” and “Is this the time you’re gonna die?” Even though we tried to not mention the word cancer around them, they heard our whispers to each other and with family and friends so they knew.
When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic cancer in 2017, we all had a discussion about faith, hope and the future. We talked about feelings from when they were younger. I think because I have survived and thrived every single time, they are confident that I will continue to fight. I’m strong so they can be strong.
As a parent, what has been the most challenging part of your cancer journey?
The hardest part of being a parent with cancer is thinking about everything I may miss. When they were younger I was in a difficult marriage and my will to fight came from not wanting to leave them alone, without a mother. There are always milestones in a child’s life, and I didn’t want to miss any of them. I was super involved at school parties and sports and because of my surgeries and treatments along the way, I’ve missed some things. When I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, my youngest was still in middle school and all I wanted was to be able to see him graduate high school. Now that we’re almost there (he graduates this year), I think about seeing my kids married, then wanting to be there for my grandkids…there are so many things, and I don’t want to miss a thing. That’s what breaks my heart the most.
Talk to me about the letters you write to your kids each year?
I have always loved writing and journaling. I love handwritten cards and letters. When my first child was born I decided to write him a letter about what he was like, what I wished for him and what I was praying for him. That tradition continued for each child every year on their birthdays. On their birthday I write a letter telling them what they’re like and what they like to do, then I write my wishes and prayers for them for the upcoming year, then I seal it. On their 18th birthday, I presented them with their letters from over the years and we read them together. It was eye opening and emotional and spurred lots of conversation. It’s a tradition that I have continued and they are now 18, 20 and 23.
How has your idea of time changed since your cancer diagnosis?
My love language has always been time (“The Five Love Languages,” Gary Smalley). For me that means I am hyper aware of the value of time and crave quality time with those I love. This though, is difficult when your kids are teens and young adults because this is the time they want to be independent and fly. When they were younger I just wanted to hold them and be 100 percent present. Now that they’re older I want the same thing, but I know I can’t smother them while they’re seeking their independence. The key for me has been just that — being present for each and every moment. I can’t think too far ahead anymore, my brain won’t allow it. I have prioritized what and who are important to me and that’s how and where I choose to spend my time. Time is one of our greatest commodities. People think we have all kinds of time and put things off or live for the next thing when we really can only be sure of today and this moment.
What have you learned about yourself during your cancer journey and being there for your son during his recovery?
My son’s stroke was probably the worst thing that has ever happened in my life. It’s one thing to be a sick parent, but when something happens to your child, it’s beyond devastating. I think the main thing I learned about myself was how strong I was and that strength comes from love. I realized that it was love for my kids that kept me strong and fighting, and it was that same love that pushed me to not only forget about my cancer, but to be there and help my son in his recovery.
What would you say to other parents who are just getting a diagnosis or enduring their own health struggle?
I would tell other parents that it will be ok. We try to shield our kids and hide difficult things but they know. They hear the whispers, and just like we know when they’re sad or being mischievous, they know when something is different with us. Be honest about your feelings and struggles (but age appropriate). Cry with them but also show your strength and resilience. Be present for them and for yourself. Love is a superpower.
I was so moved during my conversation with Anna. I found myself holding on to insights she shared. Time is a gift is something I have said to myself repeatedly since our conversation. This is true, not just for Anna but everyone.
And then I asked myself these questions: What would it be like if we lived each moment so incredibly grateful, unconsumed with thoughts of the future or the past? Who would we be as parents if we treasured the small things and fully embraced each moment? What if we approached every challenge with the idea that we are strong enough for anything? Maybe we would find our own inner Anna and approach each day with a little more love, a whole lot of strength and gratitude for each and every moment.
You can learn more about Anna’s story at thelipstickjourney.com and shop for the most beautiful lipstick. Anna has created a clean lipstick line that supports cancer fighters and survivors. My personal favorite is stormy.