Caring for Those Who Care

Recently I was asked to contribute as a blogger for the website The editor came across one of my Huffington Post articles and felt the topics and style of my writing would appeal to her audience.  1936123_1224187157146_7861387_n

I have focused so much of my time and attention, not to mention my writing, reflecting on aspects of my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. To go back and begin reliving moments in my mind of what it felt to be a caregiver to George has been both painful and rewarding. 

Watching a loved one suffer or deteriorate is absolutely brutal, yet spouses, parents, same-sex partners, siblings, friends, and countless other supporters put their own lives on hold to take care of another. Caregivers are a largely neglected, but essential piece of the healthcare puzzle, and as insurance providers look for areas in which to cut costs no doubt this group will be called upon in an even greater capacity.

I look forward to helping bring some attention to this segment who deserves more recognition than they currently receive. After living that life, and not for very long, I can say I have never had more respect for those who do it day in and day out. They are champions. 

Seeking Sanctuary In the Shower


Summer Fasting


How are we already into July? I would say it wasn’t possible, but my youngest son’s hair is green from chlorine, we’ve gone through about 27 rash guards, and I don’t recognize half of the pool towels in our collection so it must be true.

For so many years it felt like the summer dragged more than my dogs’ feet on their way into the vet. The weather was so hot, and there were only so many things to do around town, so most often we ended up at the pool where every day was exhausting. I had to be constantly on alert, one minute saving my child from drowning, the next playing referee over toys, goggles, a blade of grass, whatever. I chased my kids across cement pool decks, convinced they would rearrange their teeth with a single misstep. And just when one child was finally old enough to understand the rules, the next was ripe and ready to give me a workout.

I have taught swimming for 25 years and the pool has always been my happy place, at least when dealing with a child under the age of four who isn’t my own. I adore the laughter, freedom, and sense of accomplishment that comes along with learning to swim. But mix the struggle and unpredictability of a toddler with the dangers of water and I think any country club could make a mint in Xanax prescriptions alone.

As a seasoned swim instructor I assumed I’d have otters for children who’d swirl around in the water without a care and be my shining-star pupils. Not a chance. My oldest and youngest were pretty straightforward, but my middle child, Liam, decided to keep things spicy.

I swear I can still see the dents in my shoulders from his fingers, gripping and digging into me with sheer terror at the mere suggestion that he put his face in the water. And this was no toddler, he was six.

For years I held him, patiently coaxing, reciting all of the phrases that had been successful with the hundreds of other children I had taught to swim. “It’s just like Nemo under there! Now you can see everyone’s toes! You can do it” All the while Liam howled at the top of his lungs “Don’t make me DO it, Mommy! PLEASE!!” Other mothers looked on in horror assuming that I was stealthily pinching him under the surface. Suffice it to say, I’m thankful for all of my early successes since my own kid did little to promote my reputation.

I kept my cool, calmly reassuring him until at last Liam let go of me and made his first, brave, independent swim to the wall. I’m still not sure if the tears I cried that day were more out of relief for me or pride for him, but now at age 10, the same little guy who refused to let go of my neck glides effortlessly through the water earning ribbons in summer swim meets.

After 13 straight years of panic, vigilance, and threats of going home if they jumped off the side of the pool backward one more time, all three of my kids are officially water safe and my life has changed. I can sit and read if I feel like it, or even finish an entire sentence without having to stop and explain how impolite it is to interrupt mommy when she is trying to talk. My biggest responsibilities now are reapplying sunscreen and making sure my kids don’t spend their inheritance on Airheads and cheeseburgers at the snack bar.

I am finally beyond considering it a major accomplishment to make it to the end of a day without: A) Visiting an ER, B) Football-carrying a screaming child out of the pool who is simply not ready to call it a day, or C) Someone football-carrying a screaming ME out of the pool, because I was ready to call it a day approximately 17 minutes after we arrived. At last I get to enjoy some days with my kids, feel secure in their safety, minus the need to cart them to umpteen soccer practices and battle over math homework. Heaven.

Another bonus is now that my children are older our entire family can linger later into the evening at the pool. My husband and I can sit swapping jokes and stories with our friends, while kids of every age hang out together within earshot of their parents.

I remember feeling like my sister and I were getting away with something big the first few times we stayed late at the pool. We kept out of sight of our parents in hopes they would forget about us and lose track of time so that we could stay even later. As the sun went down and lights under the water came on, the whole look and feel of the place changed.

Sometimes the nighttime air got cold and a haze would form just above the surface. We kept our whole bodies submerged to keep warm, coming up just long enough to grab quick breaths of air with our noses like hippos, and we cast shimmering shadows on the bottom of the pool from the lights. For some reason even jumping off the same diving board at 2pm felt different than it did at 9, like an amusement park after dark: same rides, totally different experience.

So many of my wonderful memories of childhood were made during the summers at our neighborhood pool: first sport, first kiss, and first love. All to the soundtrack of lifeguard whistles, FM radio, and cannonball splashes. My challenge now is to find a way to taffy out these months and make them last a little longer for my own kids. I want them to look back on their summers and have that same experience.

Now that I am no longer so anxious and am finally able to relax, I want to enjoy this time as much as I want to create an enjoyable time for them. That is, of course, until 2 years and 10 months from now when my daughter gets her license.

What It’s Really Like After Breast Cancer Treatment



This is a pretty raw and honest look at what many women face after finishing all of the treatment and surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. What remains physically can be daunting psychologically.

As time passes I am feeling better and more like myself, and for that I am very grateful. And not to worry, I continue to laugh and joke my way through most of it, but not all days are afforded that levity.

I have decided to be as open about my experience as possible so that others going through it may feel they aren’t alone, and those who are in the support role may get some insight and a better understanding about what their loved one may be experiencing.

Health and Love,


San Fransisco Got A Little Bit Hnath-ty


I can claim victory! I made it all the way through May-hem without having to cry May-day! Woohoo! Part of what helped me push through the final week was the promise of a family vacation.

After a week of exploring the San Fransisco, California territory, we will head back home. Ancient Redwoods, hippie beach towns, seaside aquariums, and nationally ranked college campuses, Team Hnath has managed to cram more in than a Survivor contestant winning a food challenge on day 36.

We stayed with our good friend the kids call Cantina. (Our youngest couldn’t pronounce Cristina and, as all best ones do, the nickname just stuck.) We are fortunate that her home can accommodate the circus we bring anywhere we go, and more fortunate that she is willing to tolerate it.

With two young boys in particular, the loud factor cannot be understated. They. Are. L-O-U-D. If they aren’t blowing fart noises out of the sides of their cheeks, you hear crashing, booming, or cheering with every soccer kick, iPad play, or basketball shot. Shutting a cabinet door can sound like the 4th of July. But with some planning and lots of sideways if-you-aren’t-quiet-I-will-totally-send-you-to-Alcatraz-I’m-not-even-kidding-you Mom looks, we managed to keep the activities rolling, the kids entertained, and everyone sane, for the most part.

In particular, I loved watching the three kids interact together in a way only possible when you get out of town. My daughter is now 13 and her interests have drifted increasingly further from those of her brothers. Gender is certainly not the only reason to blame here; age is also a major factor to this growing divide. When we are home, Emily has her group of friends with whom she spends time, so aside from soccer, the sport the children share in common, it is tough for all three kids to connect. When we are on vacation, they are forced to hang together and the results are great. I get to see my daughter giggle. Really giggle, without caring if anyone is watching, a rarity these days. And I relish every bit of it.

Jackson, our youngest, keeps us all entertained with his one-liners and keen observations. His is the most unique mind and sense of humor I have come across and I always look forward to hearing what he will think up next. The only consistent thing about him is the fact that he will make some kind of goofy face in EVERY SINGLE photo we take along the way.

So overall the experience has been great and I am sad to see it end tomorrow as we hop on a flight and get back to our lives in VA. There were only a few squabbles over seats, tears over toys, and fights over food. Oh, and the kids have been pretty good, too.





May-be I’m Crazy


Think YOU can spot my two?

Every year at about this time, I notice that our entire family starts struggling with motivation and stamina. I have always blamed it on the end of a long school year, and the need for a nice, long break. I blindly assumed that everyone just needed summer, that delightful season of sleeping in, swimming at the neighborhood pool, playing in the sun, and hanging with friends. Three whole months for everyone to fill their collective culture tanks with trips to local museums, art fairs, and historical landmarks. And the perfect opportunity to dust off the board games, shut off technology, and reconnect with each other. Boy, was I wrong.

I now see that it isn’t really the lack of schedule or family bonding time during the summer months we are all craving (that bubble bursts approximately 8.4 seconds after we drive away from the building on the last day of school and the first squabble breaks out between my two sons), no, we just all want to be done with the month of May.

Between soccer practices, soccer games, school projects, school plays, end-of-the-year parties, Mother’s Day, two Hnath birthdays, Memorial Day, recitals, field days, teacher’s gifts, working at a school, etc., I can barely keep track of what kid needs to be at what event with what uniform. Throw a little chemo brain into the mix and you’ve got one hot, soupy, messy May-hem. Had I not remembered to check the backpack of my first-grader for something completely unrelated, my sweet little “Be Bop With Aesop” frog would have had to go on stage as a soccer goalie. I’m just ready for it to end.

I love to wrap everything up with a bow, in fact I’m all about it, but is there any way we could at least have the end-of-the-year celebration in, hmm, let’s see, early February? Oh wait, never mind, that’s basketball playoffs.

It’s easy for me to be dis-May-ed by this month, but you know what? About the second week of July I will be craving the schedule and routine (not to mention a house to myself for 15 minutes), that comes along with the school day. I have heard from other mothers that they LOVE! summer. That they CAN’T WAIT! for the school year to end and HATE! for it to begin again. I tend to put these mythical moms in the same category as those who LOVED! pregnancy, or whose kids NEVER! fight, or who CAN! bake. Amazing. Inspirational. Unobtainable.

The kids and I will do our best to entertain ourselves this summer. There will be some fun; there will be some fights. Humor abounds at Camp Hnath so often the roughest patches lead to family lore and giggles for years to come. And hey, at least I know what I look like bald, so if I end up tearing all of my hair out, no biggie. But please, oh please, may I just make it through May?

The Cancer Community

Click here to see this on HuffPost Women

Norfolk, Virginia is a medium-sized city with a small-town feel. Big enough that if you hit up a Starbucks in another neighborhood, you might be able to read the paper uninterrupted. Small enough that if you have troubles, someone always knows a resource that can help. This matters to me because I’ve needed a lot of help over the past few years.

In the three-year period between 2008 and 2011, my husband George was diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, I lost my father to liver cancer and I was diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer. I should also mention that George and I are 42 years old and have three kids under the age of 12. That’s a lot of bad news. Between our experiences as patients and caregivers, and because George is a physician himself, there is rarely an oncological question or emotion we haven’t asked or experienced. Now when anyone in the community is diagnosed with cancer, someone sends them our way for information and reassurance. Though George has and endless list of gifts and talents, interpersonal phone skills is not one of them, so I’m the one these scared cancer initiates get to talk to.


“Cancer is the ultimate leveler,” I tell my newest friend.

She’s the third in three months, but I have fielded dozens of calls before hers. Her name is Catherine and she got my number from a mutual acquaintance. Her husband Mark has just been diagnosed with melanoma. “When you talk to someone else with the same diagnosis, you skip over the bullsh*t.” I say, attempting to make her feel at ease. “This experience isn’t worth anything if I can’t help someone else going through it. George’s cancer had spread to his lung, adrenal gland, brain and pancreas. He was given six weeks to live.”

It rolls off my tongue so easily now, like I’m discussing the plot of some shi*tty TV movie.

“He’s three years out now from the last tumor they found.” I say. “Let him be your shining beacon of hope.”

I tell people what they want to hear, what they need to hear. They need a calm, reassuring voice on the other end of their frantic phone calls. They need a story they can latch onto. They need me. They need hope. I give it to them.

I don’t tell them that George is the only stage IV melanoma patient we know who is still alive.

It’s an interesting dance of the diagnosed. I remember struggling myself with what to say the first time I reached out to talk to someone else. How much is safe to reveal? Will this person betray my confidence? Can I trust her with my real thoughts? The ones that make me feel guilty? The ones that make me question the existence of God? The ones that make me look at my husband differently? The ones that make me look at him with anger about how attached I am and how I will, therefore, collapse when he inevitably dies from this? The ones that make me view him as the walking dead already? The ones that make me want to turn off my heart to spare getting hurt? The ones that convince me that no one else would or could ever love me the way he does?

Catherine tests the waters, as they all do, by revealing that she feels incredibly guilty about wanting to get out of the house and away from the three young children who need the attention and focus she doesn’t have to spare.

“They all need me.” She says, her voice starting to crack.

Catherine has begun to release the chokehold on emotions that have stayed locked at the top of her throat all day long, just waiting for a private moment to punch through.

“Catherine, it’s OK to need time away. There is so much support for the patient, but not nearly enough for the person caring for him. George and I have experienced both roles and agree it’s worse for the partner. Sometimes I would just drive and scream at the top of my lungs, pound the steering wheel or hit the seat next to me. I was furious but couldn’t find a channel to get it out. I yelled at God, but he never yelled back.”

She lets go with guttural sobs; the kind where you can’t catch your breath, the kind that make you double over and your knees buckle, the kind only born from a broken heart. She has given me the gift of her vulnerability and I feel honored to comfort her. Silently I wait as she unloads all that she has kept masterfully hidden from so many for so long, terrified of revealing her own terror.

Slowly, she begins to regain her breath and her crying subsides.

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry,” she says, “I don’t even know you and here I am spilling my guts!”

“I get it.” I say. “Not one piece of this is fair, Catherine. I keep waiting for the cancer that only strikes pedophiles, but I haven’t heard of it.”

She giggles through her tears and I hear the soft crinkle of a tissue as she wipes her nose.

“You are so reassuring, so positive,” she says, still sniffing. “How do you do it?”

I don’t have the heart to tell her I’m not convinced that George’s melanoma, or my breast cancer, is gone and will never resurface. I even wonder if I was destined to guide George through his illness so that he could be here for our children when I die. I have a 75 percent chance of beating my disease, but sometimes I can’t help dwelling on the 25 percent chance that I won’t. I look to my father, to the cancer that killed him too young, and see my genes staring back at me, my double helix forming the twisting roller coaster ahead. My cancer cells are simply dormant, just waiting for me to relax my guard, for the moment to fire up again and betray me. Only next time they will kill me.

In order to carve any sense of meaning out of this cancer bomb that detonated in our happy little life, I reach out to those traveling the path behind me. I help them navigate the forest of hospitals, clinical trials and doctor visits. I translate the new language of disease, diagnoses and drugs.

Each time I talk with someone new about cancer it scratches the surface of wounds that have been buried under layers of healthy check-ups and clean scans. I know their fear; I know their pain; I know their sadness. But I hope in talking with me, my new friends will at least know they aren’t alone.