Parenting when you have cancer – advice from a mom

Shelleen Soltys is surrounded by her children, Angie, 22; Jack. 14; Chloe, 12 and Clara, 10. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Shelleen Soltys is surrounded by her children, Angie, 22; Jack. 14; Chloe, 12 and Clara, 10. Photo by Susan Kahn.

Treatment for rectal cancer leaves Shelleen Soltys exhausted. The Camillus mother has four children from age 10 to 22, all able and willing, but she still makes the effort to do the laundry, help with homework and other chores around the house.

“They think as long as Mom keeps doing this, she’s going to be OK,” Soltys says. “So many people have said to me ‘you have to rest.’ I will when I need to. I’m keeping things as normal as they’ve always been, or close to it. But don’t get me wrong – I’m tired.”

heradviceSoltys was in the midst of a divorce when, at the age of 38, she started feeling tired. Something told her something was wrong, but she believed friends who thought she was just reacting to stress. She developed pain in her lower spine, and she had problems going to the bathroom. Finally pain in her tailbone became unbearable, and she went to Upstate University Hospital’s emergency department. Doctors discovered a mass. Soltys was diagnosed with rectal cancer.

She saw a specialist and got the results of some tests before telling her sister, Christine Coleates and her children. She considered keeping them in the dark but quickly realized she wouldn’t be able to keep such a secret.

“I sat them all down together,” she recalls. “I told them very matter-of-factly. I was not emotional. I said ‘this explains why I haven’t felt well.’ I think what helped was, I didn’t act emotional myself. If you’re upset or nervous or quiet, they’re going to take that on. I told them the type of cancer and that it was treatable.”

Since then, there have been nightmares, and there have been some revealing school “circle time” stories, but she says the children cope well. They depend on their Aunt Chrissy a lot, along with other relatives and friends.

Soltys underwent six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy in June and July 2012 to help shrink the mass. She had surgery on Halloween 2012 to remove what was left, and then six months of chemotherapy. She has gamma knife radiation treatments and targeted chemotherapy to get rid of the last specks of the tumor.

Throughout, she continues to participate in her children’s lives as much as possible. “Even when I didn’t feel well, I put the happy face on. It’s important for the people around you. It’s hard, but I have discovered that the days that I felt like I was going to die, no matter how bad it hurt, I made myself get out of bed and do something.

“Psychologically, you’re so proud of yourself.”

More than a year into her health crisis, Soltys is still grateful for the meals people give her family just about every other day, and for the good grades her children continue to make in school. She has a new job now, with a desk and daytime work hours, and she wishes she had stopped working after her cancer diagnosis. She managed a bar at the time.

“I thought that if I wasn’t working I was giving in to the illness. That’s not true,” she says. If Soltys did it over, “I would give myself a chance to rest more.”

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