Coping with cancer as a single mum was the biggest challenge of my life

SAMANTHA VALE, 37, a blogger and choreographer from Buckinghamshire, was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was just 35 – and a single parent of two young children.

Here, she explains what it was like to tell her kids she might die.

Breaking down, I couldn’t believe that bald, emaciated woman in the mirror was me. “Are you crying because you’re dying, Mummy?” my six-year-old daughter Molly asked, giving me a hug.

I tried to reassure her that I was getting better, but after 12 gruelling weeks of chemo, I couldn’t hide the tears any more.  

I met Lee in December 2010, when I was working as a choreographer. We had our son Jack, now eight, in December 2011, before we got married in July 2013, and I gave birth to Molly, now six, that November. Though we separated in 

2015, Lee and I always maintained an amicable relationship. He had the kids one evening per week, but being a self-employed single mum was exhausting.

Then, one morning in August 2018, my life suddenly turned upside down when I felt a lump above my nipple. Panicked, I called my doctor, who referred me to a breast unit.

I reassured myself that it would be nothing to worry about at 35, I was fit and healthy, I didn’t smoke, rarely drank and was vegan. Burying my head in the sand, I told no one and busied myself with work.

Two weeks later, when the kids were at school, I went for an ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy alone. After several hours, I was told by the consultant that I had stage 2 cancer, which would be treatable and fairly straightforward to operate on.

I was terrified, but pulled myself together so I could be strong for the kids. That evening, I explained to them what cancer was and that unfortunately some people didn’t get better, but the doctor hoped I would. They were both very worried but took it fairly well and didn’t cry.

Shortly afterwards, Lee and I had a frank conversation about what would happen if I didn’t survive, and how he would take the kids on full-time on his own. My family was in disbelief.

I didn’t want to burden my 60-year-old mum, Pauline, too much as she’d been battling mesothelioma cancer since 2016, but my dad, Adrian, 57, and stepmum, Julie, 54, came to as many appointments as they could with me.

The next three months passed in a flurry of scans. It turned out that the small lump was in fact 10 tumours, spread across both breasts, and the only option was a double mastectomy.

I was in shock, but decided not to have reconstructive surgery at that point, as I was worried it might restrict my ability to dance.


In November, a month before my surgery, I gathered my close friends and family together for a booby party to focus on what I was grateful for. Jack lightened the mood by painting boobs on people’s faces.

My double mastectomy was scheduled for December 5, 2018. I’d made peace with the fact that my body would look very different, but while doctors never said I might not pull through, I wanted to be prepared – so I wrote “just in case” letters to Jack and Molly telling them how much I’d miss them.

When I woke up, I cried as I was told that I wouldn’t need chemo as all the tumours had been removed. 

I was discharged two days later, and my brother Charlie, now 27, moved in to help for a week. But just five days after my surgery, my eldest brother, Ben, 35, called to say that Mum had suddenly passed away.

The news hit me hard. Christmas went by in a blur as I recovered from my op and got used to the reality that I was a single mum with no breasts, all while organising my own mum’s funeral. 

In January 2019, I was given the all-clear. I should have been overjoyed, but 

I still had a niggling feeling that something wasn’t right as I went back to work. Then six months later, I discovered a lump in my right armpit. The doctor confirmed the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and that it had somehow been missed before.

Frightened and devastated, I explained to the kids that I’d have to have chemo and my hair was going to fall out, which they were very upset about.


I spent most nights crying in the bath after the kids had gone to bed and I found myself keeping friends at a distance. But knowing how tough things were going to get, I realised I had to start asking for help.

I tried to schedule in work on the weeks that I guessed I might be feeling OK, as I knew it would hit us hard financially.

Two days before I started chemo, in October 2019, I asked my hairdresser to shave my head. 

I wanted Jack and Molly to see me choosing to do this. Still, I sobbed throughout the appointment. I asked the kids whether they wanted me to wear a hat on the school run but they said no.

As I stepped into the playground I felt Molly’s little hand tighten around mine. From then on I felt comfortable being bald, though I’d occasionally wear a headscarf or a wig as people would sometimes stare in the street. I hadn’t been prepared for how gruelling chemo would be.

I had an IV infusion every three weeks, and for a week afterwards it felt like I was dying. I vomited, had diarrhoea, as well as mouth ulcers and headaches.

The kids stayed with Lee after each treatment, and we put aside any conflicts – he would give me a hug when I needed it and help me inject my immunotherapy drugs. 

In November, midway through chemo, I decided to cheer myself up with some salsa classes. Walking into a room of 300 people with my bald head took some guts, but I soon got into it, and started dancing with man called Tom* who later asked me on a date.


In-between chemo cycles, we began going for dinner. Though we later decided we’d work better as friends, it was a huge boost to my confidence.

I finished chemo in December and had a course of radiotherapy in February this year. I’ve been told I have a “fair” chance of the cancer returning, but an 80% chance I’ll still be here in 10 years, so I try to live in the moment.

I always dreamed of meeting my grandchildren, but I’ve adjusted my goals – now I just hope I see my kids finish school. 

I was shielding during lockdown, so I’ve not yet had the chance to try dating, but I’d like to start soon. I’m determined something positive should come out of my experience, so I’ve started a support community called The Bounce Back Club for women during times of crisis and change.

I’ve also written a children’s book called The Lady With No Hair [out this autumn with Tiny Angels Press] to help kids understand chemo, and I do public speaking for Breast Cancer UK. 

Slowly, my hair is growing back, and my kids are thriving. I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know that I’ve found an inner strength that I never knew I had.

*Name has been changed

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