Maria Baum, 48, Sag Harbor, NY
Five years ago, a brave, beautiful little girl in our town was diagnosed with cancer and died. Everyone in our community, including my children—13, 10, 7 and 3 at the time—was heartbroken. So when I found out I had breast cancer shortly after her passing, I knew my kids would be terrified. Rather than gently break the news, I decided to shield them from all the fear, anxiety and pain.
As you can imagine, having a lumpectomy was difficult to go through—but it was easy to hide from my children. It was an outpatient procedure, so I wasn't away from home for long. And if I couldn't do something, like lift my youngest son, I'd say "Mommy's back hurt" or offer another excuse. At that point only my husband and a few very close friends knew what was going on, and I swore them to secrecy. I remember saying, "You cannot even discuss this in your house" because if their kids found out, mine would too.
However, about a month later I needed a second surgery. I had to tell the kids something since I was going to stay overnight at the hospital. The night before I explained to each one as casually and cheerfully as possible—despite the turmoil within me—that I was having a small operation and it was no big deal. The hardest part was disguising my chemotherapy treatments. For 12 weeks over the summer, while the kids were at day camp or at friends' houses, I'd lie in bed, exhausted. As soon as they were about to come home, I'd put on makeup, brew a cup of coffee and, most important, smile. I tried to be upbeat every minute I was with them. Once they went to bed I'd collapse. Of course, there were times I couldn't find the energy to pretend to be happy. So I'd say, "Mommy has the flu" or "Mommy has food poisoning."
Thankfully, there was one place where I could relinquish my forced cheer and let out all my anger. While I was going through chemo, a friend introduced me to paddleboarding. That summer I mustered up what little energy I had to head to the bay really early in the morning, when no one was around. I'd let loose and cry and scream, and by the time I got home I felt peaceful. Doing something physical felt great—and reinforced my cover story of everything being fine. I imagined my kids thinking, "She can't be sick; she's so active!"
Once I felt stronger, I started thinking about how to protect other women from this disease. In 2012 I founded the Hamptons Paddle & Party for Pink, which benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. So far we've raised more than $5 million and I've shared that I'm a survivor with millions of people—including my kids. I told them one by one once my doctor declared me cancer-free, and they join me at the fundraising event every year. I never planned to keep it a secret forever. I just wanted a vibrant and healthy mom to be the one to share it.