Writing as Refuge

Mom blogger Jen Singer didn’t stop writing when she was diagnosed with cancer.

By Jen Miller

In 2007, Jen Singer was on a roll. Having taken a leap and quit her pharmaceutical advertising job, she was making a living as a freelance writer. Her funny, popular, award-winning Web site, www.mommasaid.net, was gaining an ever-widening audience; she was finishing work on a parenting book and had just signed a three-book contract to write a parenting series; she was serving as a spokesperson for Huggies® Pull-Ups®; and she had recently committed to contributing a column to Goodhousekeeping.com about parenting tweens, based on her experience raising her sons, now 13 and 11.

But she hadn’t been feeling well. Jen, who played soccer in college, was feeling rundown and had a constant cough. And, strangely, her shirts seemed to be getting tighter. What was going on? “Every symptom I had was poo-pooed as the ‘end-of-life change’ or as the whole menopause thing,” says Jen, now 43.

Then, six weeks after inking the book deal, doctors gave her an answer: Jen was diagnosed with aggressive Stage III B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A tumor the size of a softball was lodged in her lungs and had started to wrap around her heart.

Writing Through It

Jen started chemotherapy immediately, but she didn’t stop writing. “It was the only thing I could control,” she says, sipping tea in the living room of her Kinnelon, New Jersey, home on a steel-gray winter day. “Writing was a safe land I could go to, where everything was the same as before I got cancer.”

There were times when she fell asleep with the computer humming in her lap, but she was generally able to write pretty consistently. Jen’s brother had lent her his laptop so that she could finish You’re a Good Mom, and Your Kids Aren’t So Bad Either, the parenting book she had begun before her diagnosis; the book was published in 2008, while Jen was in the hospital.

Though the book didn’t include anything about cancer, Jen’s online work did. She’d pre-written a few Goodhousekeeping.com columns prior to her diagnosis, but she didn’t know how to continue writing about parenting tweens as she went through treatment without cluing her readers in. Luckily, her employer was flexible: “They gave me wide latitude,” she says. “It was about kids, cancer, and construction.”

Jan didn’t shy away from writing about cancer on www.mommasaid.net either. Her entries maintained the same kind of honesty she’d always shared with her readers since launching the site in 2003. “I wrote in real time, about what do you say to a mom who has cancer,” Jen says. And she maintained the site’s signature humor too: her wacky wig contest asked readers to pick—from choices that included a Mohawk—which wig she’d wear once she lost her hair.

Community Comes Through

The refuge that Jen’s writing life provided was a welcome distraction from a period that at times verged on bedlam. In addition to managing the challenges of diagnosis and treatment along with the standard chaos of her writing career and a young family’s busy home, the Singer family was in the middle of a house addition that included a new living room and an office space for Jen.

With the help of her extended family and their community, Jen and her husband, Pete, managed to hold it all together through her six rounds of chemotherapy (two that included hospital stays) and two months of radiation treatments. “People were cooking for us and taking the kids to swim meets,” Jen says. She rarely had to ask for help outside of her immediate family; it was presented to her. Casseroles were dropped off on the porch, friends helped with the kids, and support flowed in.

The Road Ahead

Jen was declared in remission on January 3, 2008, and she has had seven clear PET (positron emission tomography) scans since. She feels well, works with a personal trainer, and is back to doing things she loves, like skiing, though she doesn’t go quite as hard as she used to.

She’s nevertheless careful when she discusses her prognosis: “I don’t want to anger the cancer gods,” she says, acknowledging the ambiguity of her post-cancer life. “If I’m cured, why do I have to get PET scans, and why can’t I give blood?”

But clearly shining through Jen’s remaining anxiety is her sense of gratitude. To celebrate two years of clear PET scans, she threw a party and raised funds for the New Jersey chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, which included performances from the Sugar Hill Gang, her cousins’ band the Flying Mueller Brothers, and a bongo performance by her mother. “It was a way of saying thank you to everyone who helped us, who cooked for us, and who drove our kids around. It was a very grand way of saying to my children that we’ve moved to a different stage of our lives,” she says.

This new stage continues to include a busy writing career. The two final books in Jen’s three-book series, which she finished while undergoing radiation, were published in 2009 and 2010, and she continues her work with www.mommasaid.net and Huggies Pull-Ups.

Despite the return to “normal life,” Jen acknowledges that her family will never be the same. Her kids grew up early by almost losing their mom, she says, and it’s not easy to look beyond the next PET scan. “The cancer was very hard on them,” she says of her sons. “Their mother, who was the center of their universe, almost died.”

In fact, her kids’ experience and her own as a parent with cancer has fueled her next project, a memoir tentatively titled If Cancer Is a Gift, Where Can I Return It?, which focuses on parenting during cancer and addresses a lot of questions she had while in treatment: How do you tell kids that a parent has cancer? How do you continue to be the parent you want to be? During her own journey, Jen couldn’t find anything to read that addressed those issues. Everything related to parenting and cancer was about having a child with cancer, she says, not the other way around.

This and her other projects keep Jen’s writing life busy as she looks ahead. But there has been one significant change: she is no longer stuck working in the corner of her basement. The office that the family added on while she underwent cancer treatment is complete, and she now “goes to work” in the new space, with a wide desk, floor-to-ceiling windows, and—her favorite feature—a door with a lock; and it all overlooks the backyard, where her sons can see her working while they play.