“I am a full-time oncology mom”: Angie Poirier shares her family’s battle with childhood cancer 

Angie Poirier's son Nash

Our cancer story began in our little boy’s favourite place.

We were spending the weekend in Syracuse, watching his favourite basketball team play. It was his eighth birthday gift.

We were in the hotel room when he randomly said, “Mom. I have a weird lump in my cheek.” I felt it — it was tiny and pea-sized — and proceeded to think all the mom thoughts: maybe he banged it; maybe it’s a cyst; I’ll call his doctor when we get home.

I gave up on trying to get an appointment with his doctor and took him to the walk-in clinic instead, where we waited three hours to be seen. The doctor examined the lump and wondered, as I did, “Did he bump it? Was he sick recently? Maybe it’s a swollen lymph node; not sure.” Tests were ordered, and when they came back, the blood work looked normal and the ultrasound was inconclusive. “Maybe it’s best to get a second opinion at CHEO.”

Fast forward to more ultrasounds, an MRI, a CT scan, and more uncertainty. We heard new terms of possibilities, like vascular anomaly, venous malformation, parotid gland. However, several times along the way we were told it looked benign — the one word that gave us comfort throughout. 

The lump was growing quickly though, so conversations about surgery followed and then, finally, a biopsy.

Angie Poirier and her family and a basketball game

The words no parent wants to hear

We asked to be called about the biopsy results — if it was bad news, we wanted to get it at home, in our safe place. Confidence was still on our side, though, that it would be benign.

When the call came, we were thankfully home alone — all of the kids were at school.

Up in our room, sitting on our bed, on speaker phone, our confidence quickly morphed into confusion. The room started to feel small and claustrophobic when I heard him say the words I hadn’t been able to bring myself to even consider. Malignant. Cancer.

I will never forget the feeling of folding, like a broken paper doll, into my mattress, burying my face, and unleashing guttural cries from depths I hadn’t known.

I couldn’t comprehend it. My thoughts were spinning with, “But he doesn’t look sick. But he just played three great games of basketball in his tournament. But he’s only eight.”

Then we were told he had an appointment to meet his oncology team the next morning at 9 a.m.

We were, in the blink of an eye, an oncology family.

My daughters got home moments later, and telling them was the second-hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. We explained through sobs that their little brother — who they had helped raise — was going to be very sick and would need all of us, more than ever.

The hardest thing came right after that: telling our little boy.

We were all sitting in the living room waiting for him when he got home from school. I’ll never forget his sheepish smile as he looked at all of us suspiciously. I think he thought he was getting a puppy.

My memory of those next few moments, as my husband choked out the words, telling the sweetest boy in the world he has cancer, is the most painful to relive. We all embraced him as he sobbed, hyperventilated, and squeezed us with all his might. He felt all the weight of that terrible word. Cancer.

Fast forward again to our new normal. Although we’ve only just begun this long battle, we are learning and studying our way through cancer school. Binders of paperwork, lists of medications, calendars of appointments, and a whole pharmacy of pill bottles line our countertops. I am a full-time oncology mom.

The long road ahead

All of a sudden, I had formed instant alliances and friendships with cancer survivors who took us under their wings and lifted us up. There is magic to be found in all the darkness. It still feels odd to consider myself as part of this community of women who have reached out to me. All of them seem much more knowledgeable and stronger than me — they’ve had no choice.

Our medical plan comprises about a year and half of chemo and radiation, including a six-week stay in Boston at the children’s hospital. There’s still so much to learn and much more strength to find.

As an “oncology mom,” I guess if I can give any advice, it would be … listen to your kids.

If it’s a new bump, lump, or pain, don’t try to explain it away. If you’re not getting clear, decisive answers, keep pushing. Keep asking the hard questions. Wait three hours in the waiting room if you have to.

Also, hug your babies. Take no days for granted. Go play catch. Go to the park. Go on the bike ride. You never realize how much you’ll miss those little things until you see your child too sick and too weak to do them.

I have been told by so many people that “this is just a chapter, not your whole story.” I believe that. We will get our little boy through this chapter, and once we do, we will be on the other side, waiting to take any future cancer families under our wings and lift them up, too.

To steal a quote from the bookmark that came from Victoria’s Quilts — the lovely ladies who made my son a cancer quilt to comfort him on his days in hospital — “Cancer may change your lives in an instant, but cancer cannot shatter hope, cancer cannot conquer the spirit.”

We won’t allow it to.


The honest talk