I am the mother of a cancer survivor. There is a word other parents use that I will never use again.

I put my daughter on the kindergarten bus in 2009. A week without treatment for high-risk cancer, she had hearing aids, leg braces, sparse hair, endocrine issues and kidney damage. As the bus pulled away, I was standing at the end of my driveway. We made it.

For 18 months, the first day of kindergarten was our polar star. We snuggled up in Emily’s hospital bed and chatted about the details of the day ahead, which when it finally came included a pink wheeled backpack, two packs of Barbie Gummy bears in her Dora lunch box, and glowing sneakers.

As tearful moms posted selfies at the bus stop, I sat in my car and sobbed — not because I was sad, but because I was overcome with relief, joy, and gratitude. My heart didn’t ache for the past, my heart burst for the present. Emily was on a bus going to school.

The milestone gave me reassurance that she was fine, I was fine, and life was fine — at least for now.

The first week of school, Emily became obsessed with mastering the monkey bars and asked me to sign her up for soccer. She balanced on tiptoe, the laces of her heels atrophied from lying in bed for so long. I feared she would fall and hurt herself, but when I saw her on a grass field in an orange jersey, I cheered with all my might on the sidelines.

Less than a year earlier, Emily was fighting for her life during back-to-back stem cell transplants. Now she was giving her friends a high-five after a game. We stopped for a pizza break to celebrate. In pediatric oncology I missed such everyday moments the most.

The author and Emily at Disney World in 2010 for their Make-A-Wish vacation
The author and Emily at Disney World in 2010 for their Make-A-Wish vacation

Nevertheless, Emily’s health continued to shape our days. She needed occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, and a reading teacher. She protested early layoffs for doctor appointments. “I can’t miss school anymore!”

It was like she had an agenda and a time frame. And maybe she did, because by the end of kindergarten she could read, climb the jungle gym and no longer needed her leg braces. My worries about not being able to make friends were replaced by a daily report of what snack she swapped with her friends during lunch.

For five years after her treatment, I held my breath and waited for Emily’s signs of remission. The uncertainty made me unhappy. Whenever Emily had a headache, I immediately thought the cancer had returned. I joined a Facebook group for neuroblastoma parents and then stopped following the group because too many of their children were dying, which sent me reeling for days.

I thought the anxiety would go away when Emily was officially in “remission,” but that wasn’t the case. I longed to speak with certainty about their future as other mothers did about their children. They laughed about sending their kids to college early, but I wasn’t even sure if we’d make it to middle school.

The highs of typical childhood milestones and the lows of cancer collateral damage have left me exhausted. Elementary school talent shows, band concerts, the school fair, summer camps, and sleepovers had the power to depress me almost as much as waiting for an MRI for unexplained discoloration of her lungs. Extreme joy and extreme sadness coexisted in ways I never thought could.

Emily celebrates her 10th birthday.
Emily celebrates her 10th birthday.

Mostly the good moments carried me. For Emily’s 10th birthday, we threw a surprise party and drove her to her friends’ house to see a movie unsupervised for the first time.

Other parents labeled those moments as “bittersweet.” But I couldn’t find anything bitter about them. That’s a word I would never use – it felt wrong to me. Emily lived and thrived. I felt like I was living in an alternate universe where the past was bitter and the present was sweet.

But as Emily grew older, the physical differences between Emily and her friends became apparent. At night in bed, I wondered if she would survive going to prom and getting her driver’s license, and if so, what those moments would be like. The treatment stunted her growth and deprived her of estrogen, requiring her to wear an estrogen patch to allow her body to develop. The fake period is a bonus, her endocrinologist said. “It will make her feel more like her friends.” But it took a while for it to work.

A few weeks before a middle school dance, Emily and I would walk around the mall for hours trying to find a dress that fit and wasn’t from a children’s clothing store. On the way home we cried dejectedly. But the next day we teamed up and went to a fancy shop in town that made the same prints for women and children, so her friends couldn’t tell her dress was a child size.

At the dance night I turned into a paparazzi. “No more pictures,” Emily snapped. After I dropped her off, I called my sister. “She’s here! She’s at the friggin’ middle school dance!” The good, slightly ordinary moments were often a challenge to get there, but when they did, they shone in Technicolor.

“We made it!” became my mantra for every measure, big or small, though I didn’t dare say it out loud for fear of jinxing our progress. Emily and I were a team. I set up the ball and she kept kicking it, despite her refusal to acknowledge our partnership in her teens.

The author with Emily on graduation night
The author with Emily on graduation night

When Emily was in high school, I had a hard time accepting the idea that she was alive and going to do things I only dreamed of. The stakes felt higher. She challenged herself in high-level courses and practiced her lacrosse skills in the backyard so her ball work skills would make up for her lack of size.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen moments materialize that were once just flashes in my head. She obtained her driver’s license with the help of special car modifications so that she could reach the gas pedals. Her prom dress wasn’t from a children’s store, it just needed to be altered. For strategic hairstyles and makeup tips to look older, she uses TikTok.

For months I have been listening to the parents of grads who are in awe that it will all be over soon. The days of active parenthood are behind us. It will crush her and make her long for the good ole days of snuggling before bed. I nod my head.

But I’m not impressed that it’s over; I’m in awe that it happened: all the unpromised moments and milestones we take for granted until something threatens to destroy them.

If cancer has given me anything, it’s perspective. Knowing that the little moments are the big moments. And that the milestones along the way remind us that our child is fine, we are fine, and life is fine. For us there is no bitter, only sweet. We’ve inched closer to where we’ve been going since we put our kid on the bus 12 years ago. The reality of his arrival is a miracle.

Amy McHugh is a freelance writer on Cape Cod. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Oprah Daily, NBC News and Shondaland. She is writing a memoir on parenting, mental health and new beginnings. See more of her work at

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