Written By Mary Alice Hartsock
Two years ago, a breast cancer diagnosis was the last thing Arizonian Antoinette Giedzinska-Simonsneeded.
Even before her diagnosis, Antoinette, then 43, knew that raising her son, Haydn, was the only thing that kept her going.
Antoinette was married to a man who broke earlier promises to support her growing career by refusing to move to an area where she could find work. After seven months of searching for a job, she finally found one—but it took three hours a day to get there.
Then, more bad news: Antoinette found a lump in her breast, and a biopsy revealed that she had stage IIIB, triple-negative breast cancer. Because she has a PhD in clinical psychology with a focus on psycho-oncology, she understood the difficult emotions and challenges she would face.
“My first reaction was sorrow,” she says. “Getting pregnant when I was 39 was really a miracle. I couldn’t believe that God would bless me with this beautiful child and then take me away from him when he was only 4 years old.”
Antoinette made plans for a mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation. She had extreme fatigue during the one-year course of treatment and developed painful ulcers in her mouth, throat and rectum from chemotherapy. Recovering from the treatments required constant help from family members and friends.
“My sisters have very busy lives, and I was blown away by how they stepped up to the plate and put time aside for me,” she says. “My community and friends were really there for me. They took Haydn on play dates. My best girlfriends flew to be with me, and my friendships only got stronger.”
Ending a Marriage During Treatment
Despite the help she received, Antoinette was deeply hurt by her marriage. “I put my head in the sand. That’s how I lived,” she says.
After her diagnosis, Antoinette felt that the breast cancer “became his issue. He would seek out sympathy for himself from anyone who would listen.”
The marriage did not give Antoinette the support she needed. “When I was diagnosed, I knew that living would protect Haydn, not dying; so I became empowered through the cancer to pull my head out of the sand.”
As she began her radiation treatments, Antoinette filed for divorce. It added new stress, but leaving behind her marriage took a huge weight off Antoinette’s shoulders.
“My diagnosis was a sign that I needed to start living,” she says. “The question now was, how did I want to live the rest of my life?”
Gaining control over her own life and her son’s life helped Antoinette feel less stress about cancer and treatments. “I moved into acceptance coping, which helps when you can’t [actively] cope with something, like cancer,” she says. “I became the patient. I would let my body receive the medicine and do its healing work.”
Antoinette began to allow others to pray with her. She started an open conversation with God, expressing anger when she felt overwhelmed. A move closer to her job and renewed dedication to it led to a wonderful career path at a hospital. She gets through each day by loving her child “with the deepest passion and energy I can muster.”
Today, she leaves dirty dishes in the sink to play Star Wars games with Haydn. She hopes her story will help other mothers understand the importance of being straightforward with children to help their healing process.
“As moms, we want to protect our children from pain or worry,” Antoinette says. “There were times during treatment when I would crawl into bed with Haydn and sing to him, and I would cry. I let him see my emotions, and the best thing about that is that it allowed him to care for me. He would pat my head or my heart and say, ‘Don’t cry, Mommy. I love you.’
“Our children are experiencing a loss of control themselves when we get sick. If we don’t allow them to care for us, we don’t allow them to gain control.”
Never Looking Back
When Antoinette finished treatment, she asked her doctor if she would have the energy and stamina to continue working full time while going through a divorce. “He told me I did and said, ‘Never look back.’”
Every few months, Antoinette has a day where she thinks, “‘Oh God, I’m going to die soon.’ Then I do my own self-therapy or pray, to remind myself that I only have today and I have to make the most of it.”
For the newly diagnosed, Antoinette says, “Know what you can and can’t control, and adjust your coping to that. Get out of your own way, and let your medical team take care of you and openly receive the help from friends and family. Healing begins when we are receptive and not resistant.”