I cared for my daughter through children’s cancer

By Lisa Twang, Feb 11, 2021

Last week, we kicked off our Valentine’s Day series The Things We Do For Love with Sandy (whose Dayre handle is @sandydandy). She spoke about her experience of going to marriage counselling to support her husband. 

This week, we move from romantic love to motherly love. We asked entrepreneur and mum-of-three Audrey Tan, whose Dayre handle is @audt01, to share how she supported her eldest daughter Kayla, who was diagnosed with Wilms Tumour (a rare kidney cancer which affects mostly children) at four years old. Kayla is now in remission. 

Caring for Kayla through chemotherapy, surgery, and hospitalisation was the biggest challenge of Audrey’s life: especially with then-three-year-old Tiffany and new baby Thaddeus to look after, too. Still, through her exhaustion and worry, Audrey discovered just how deep her love for her children is. 

Now, with a fourth child on the way, Audrey sees motherhood as her most important job, and recounts how Kayla’s cancer journey helped her realise how precious her kids are. 

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When people tell me I’m brave or strong for seeing Kayla through cancer, I don’t agree, because I just did what I needed to do as a mum for Kayla to survive. 

There’s a quote by Bob Marley I really love: “You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.” The reality is that if you’re in a situation where your kid has cancer, you have no choice but to step up, or your child may die. 

We first found out Kayla had Wilms Tumour when I was pregnant with Thaddeus — we’d discovered a lump on her stomach, and a test revealed a cancerous tumour in her kidney. Though I was devastated by Kayla’s diagnosis, falling apart was not an option. I decided my main priority was to do whatever it took to help Kayla recover and be present for her, so she could still enjoy a happy childhood.

As women, we have so many responsibilities: being a wife, mother, daughter, friend, and colleague. Each role takes so much out of you, and it’s hard to balance all of them. 

But being a mother is the most important thing in my life. The love I feel from my kids is so pure and unconditional, and I’ll do anything for them.

I’ve always wished for lots of kids. I’m an only child, and grew up without cousins: my mum is an only child too, and my dad’s only sister is single. So I wanted a big family of my own when I grew up. My husband Daniel and I have actually talked about having six kids — but managing our children is so exhausting, so we’re probably going to stop at four! 

I love how my kids have such different personalities. Kayla is funny and very sensible, like a typical oldest child; Tiffany has a strong will and marches to the beat of her own drum, and Thaddeus is hyperactive but sociable.

Left to right: six-year-old Kayla; five-year-old Tiffany; and Thaddeus, who turns two this year.

Left to right: six-year-old Kayla; five-year-old Tiffany; and Thaddeus, who turns two this year.

All of my kids are special to me, and I love being their mother. When they’re sick, scared or in pain, it’s my job to be there for them.

Caring for Kayla through her cancer journey was the most challenging experience of my life. After her diagnosis I became her main caregiver, and was with her almost 24/7 as she went in and out of hospital.

My husband was busy with work, and couldn’t physically be with Kayla as much as he wanted to. Fortunately my business partner agreed to take over for me, so I could dedicate my time to caring for Kayla. 

My mum, who lives in the US, also flew over to help look after Tiffany, because she was worried about me managing the girls while I was also pregnant with Thaddeus. 

In all, Kayla went through two surgeries and eight months of chemo. It was very rough for the first four months, because Kayla was hospitalised almost every day and found the whole experience very traumatic. Her doctors and nurses were constantly rotating, so it was as if she was being examined by strangers all the time. Once, a nurse was quite rough with her when changing the needle for her port for chemo medication, which is inserted in her chest. Kayla screamed so horribly in extreme pain, and it broke my heart. 

Kayla had nightmares because she was scared of the nurses and procedures, so I’d sleep with her in her hospital bed. I was in my third trimester, and it was really uncomfortable for me to be curled up in a small bed, trying to avoid Kayla’s tubes. Sometimes I’d get really bad cramps, and I couldn’t really rest well. I only went home to shower, and would quickly rush back to the hospital so Kayla wouldn’t be upset, as she constantly needed me around.

Over time, I learned to care for Kayla and do almost everything for her, so the nurses wouldn’t have to. I could apply the numbing cream, feed her medication, take her temperature and so on. To pass the time in hospital, Kayla would play games and watch TV on her iPad, and sometimes we’d go to the hospital playroom if she wasn’t having a fever reaction from her medication. 

As chemo patients are supposed to live in a clean environment with minimal human contact, our family moved temporarily to a smaller place. It was in a quieter neighbourhood, and was easier to clean and sanitise. On days when we were allowed to go home, Kayla would play with Tiffany. Sometimes, we’d go on short family outings to quiet places while wearing masks, to minimise the risk of infection.

Besides looking after Kayla physically, I had to be there for her emotionally, too. At her age, she couldn’t fully understand why she was sick, so I helped her make sense of the changes she was going through.

For example, I had to explain to Kayla why she was losing her beloved long hair after chemo.  We’d never cut Kayla’s hair short since she was a baby, and when her hair and eyebrows started falling out, she was very sad. 

When Kayla was upset, I comforted her by assuring her that her hair would grow back, and she was still beautiful even without hair. To cheer her up, we got Kayla a blonde wig so she could look like her favourite Disney princess from Frozen, Elsa.

I also reminded Kayla that there were other kids who were also having chemo and losing their hair, so she wouldn’t feel so alone. I was so touched when she said, “I’ll try to be brave Mummy, and go through my treatment so I can get better again”. I was really proud of her, and realised how mature she’d become.

After moving to our new place, I gave birth to Thaddeus. Between looking after a newborn, managing Kayla’s illness, and making time for Tiffany, I was really exhausted.

During Thaddeus’s first month, I didn’t feel like I was in confinement at all: I was still bringing Kayla to hospital regularly. I also had to stop breastfeeding Thaddeus after two months, because it was too difficult to pump milk through Kayla’s hospital stays and treatments. 

Luckily, Kayla was managing much better overall in the second half of her chemo treatment. We’d switched hospitals and she had a regular doctor, whom she became really close to. Kayla stopped having nightmares, and since she was recovering well, we also started spending much more time at home. This made it easier for me to spend time with my kids, and not have to commute so much. 

At times I felt mum guilt because Kayla needed me so much, and it was hard to give enough attention to Tiffany and Thaddeus too.

Back then I was caring for Kayla round-the-clock, making sure she ate well and was taking her medication. I also had to juggle feeding and playing with Thaddeus when he came along, but I didn’t have as much time with him as I wanted. I realised I had so few photos of Thaddeus when he was a baby, compared to Kayla and Tiffany, and I felt guilty that I was missing out on bonding with him. 

I also worried that Tiffany would feel neglected, as Kayla and Thaddeus were taking up so much of my time. I explained to Tiffany that Kayla was really sick and Thaddeus was still very young, and Mummy needed to be there for them but I still loved Tiffany so much. It wasn’t easy, but I think over time, Tiffany understood. 

One thing that really helped lighten the mood, and give us something to do together as a family, was heading out to different spots to take pictures. This helped Tiffany feel included too, and gave me a chance to spend quality time with all three children.

Though I tried to stay positive, especially on social media, there were times when I broke down. I worried that Kayla might not survive her cancer, and it was hard to see Kayla suffer so much.

When Kayla was first diagnosed, we were linked with another family whose child had recovered from cancer, for moral support. But their child had a relapse and passed away, and that shook me and Daniel because we realised it could happen to Kayla, too. Daniel was even more anxious than I was whenever Kayla had a scan, and at times I had to be there for him too and reassure him that she would recover.

Once, I remember Kayla coming out of her surgery, waking up and being so distraught that she screamed for me and pulled the tubes out of her body. I broke down and cried, because I hated seeing her that way.

In these times, I clung to my faith that Kayla would recover, and took comfort as people rallied around us to help lift our spirits.

My mother was cured of cancer without having to go for an operation, which the doctors said was a miracle. So even though it crossed my mind that Kayla might pass on, I kept believing that God would heal Kayla, too.

I’m also thankful that while Kayla was ill, I never felt alone. Daniel was always there for me, and I was touched by all the messages of support from friends, family and even strangers on Dayre and Instagram, who were following Kayla’s recovery journey. People would send gifts to her, like Barbie dolls, without expecting anything in return. I was so grateful for all the love for Kayla and our family, and it saw me through the difficult days.  

Caring for Kayla through cancer felt like a tedious, terrible process, but it was worth it: Kayla’s chemo was a success. In September, she will have been cancer-free for two years, which makes the likelihood of a relapse much lower. 

Looking back, supporting Kayla through cancer was so taxing, and full of stress and worry. 

But it also brought our family closer, and made me appreciate the time I have with my kids.

Before Kayla had cancer, she and I were already very close. I didn’t work for the first six months after she was born and was with her all the time, so we had a very strong bond. But after spending a whole year together so intensely during Kayla’s cancer treatment, we became best friends on a whole different level. Kayla would always choose me to be the one taking care of her, or playing with her.

Besides bonding with Kayla, I feel like I also grew closer to Tiffany. Going out with both Kayla and Tiffany seemed even more fun than usual — our outings were such a happy contrast to all the sad, dark times of having jabs and taking medication. 

Daniel and I definitely became stronger as a couple because of Kayla’s illness, too. Going through something like this forces you to put all your unhappiness with each other aside, and work together as a team to save your child. 

The year Kayla was sick was a pretty lonely period as I barely saw my friends, especially in the first half of Kayla’s treatment. Since I was so busy, we mostly kept in touch via texting. While I was thankful for their support, the only one who could really relate to how I was feeling was Daniel. We talked often about our fears that Kayla might not survive her cancer, and supported each other when we were feeling down. 

Even while he was busy at work, Daniel would video call Kayla and I often, and come over and stay with us in the hospital almost every night. I’m grateful for him taking the time to look after us, and for us growing closer during this difficult time.

Honestly, I don’t see what I’ve done for Kayla as a sacrifice. The moment you decide to bring a child into this world, it’s a lifetime commitment — whatever happens, you just have to be there for your kid. 

I look at motherhood as a long-term responsibility: from pregnancy, to seeing your kids through school and adulthood. I’m in it for every smile and laugh, and every dark moment of fear and worry.

Caring for Kayla through cancer has helped me see what’s important in life: looking after my kids’ health and wellbeing, and staying close as a family.

Though I may get busier as our family grows, I’ll always make time for each of my kids. As a parent, my wish is that they’ll be happy forever: and I hope to make their childhood as joyful and wonderful as I can.

Pictures provided by Audrey. 


Writer’s Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I share the joy and heartaches of being a mum to my four-year-old daughter Tully, and why I’ve decided that she will be an only child.

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