Two days ago we celebrated the sixth birthday of our younger son, the whiny one. Usually I go overboard and make a cake and decorate it to the best of my limited ability. Between the two of them, they’ve had a ladybug, a plane, a cricket bat, a tractor, a treasure chest and a Spiderman cake. Those are the ones I can remember.

This time I just couldn’t rouse myself to decorate myself silly, and we had a fabulous time with his cousins and a few friends that he selected and went to a place where they could swing from the trees like monkeys. My better half got a store-bought cake and we plunked in some candles. It was too windy to light them so the whiny one pretended with great gusto to blow them out, then we cut the cake with an old credit card because we’d forgotten to bring a knife. And lo and behold, he had a wonderful birthday. We’d invited people the day before, a new high in our disorganisation competition, and gone out somewhere, something which I’d never, ever wanted to do. To feel like a good mom, I sometimes feel I need to go all out, perhaps to make up for all the time I spend at work. I plan weeks, sometimes months in advance, researching which cake to make, getting input from the child in question, then invariably end up at eleven pm the night before, cursing myself in equal measures with a feeling of maternal bliss for having someone to make a cake for. My mother claims not to remember, but she made a few legendary birthday cakes in her time, the highlights of her maternal instinct. When I make a super birthday cake I feel like I’m letting my child know how much I care for them by baking my love into a cake.

Bottom line – the kid had a blast, spent time with his friends and I spent zero effort on a cake. Also, bonus! We probably spent less money going out than if we’d stayed at home and hired a bouncy castle and provided loads of food for kids and parents. As I hate spending money, this turned out to be a win-win.

Lurking at the back of my mind, though, is the thought of all the people who will never get to celebrate the sixth birthday, or another birthday of a much-loved child. The thought doesn’t cloud my day, though, as I am able to compartmentalise. It just makes me extra grateful. Grateful to modern medicine in particular – we spent hundreds of thousands of rands on fertility treatment to make these two glorious children. The curse of the professional woman, leaving childbearing ‘til we’ve achieved something in our careers, and then we discover (shock horror!) that our eggs are all tired and shriveled up and have little desire to fulfil their destiny. I am eternally grateful to the dedicated staff at Vitalab who made our babies for us, and to our rock-star obstetrician, Bronwyn Moore, who got the first one out with a minimum of pain and a touch of the old suction cup, and pulled the second one out the sunroof with an emergency C-section. Number Two, defiant from the start, refused to feed and landed himself up in high care. A mere few decades ago, without the benefit of modern medicine, Number One might have had birth asphyxia and not have been as clever as he is (biased much?) and Number Two might not have survived at all. And did I mention our neonatologist extraordinaire, Prof Vic Davies? Nothing but the best for my children. Despite the fact that he called us breastfeeding Nazis, and pooh-poohed our desire never to give our children anything but mother’s milk, his calm presence and dry humour made a difficult time more manageable.

Our experiences were nothing compared to what my patients and their families go through, but I find it useful to remind myself of those times to re-ground myself, to find empathy for my patients’ families especially when I am tired and depleted.

My wish for the new year is that awareness of childhood cancer grows so that when kids present with signs of cancer, they are recognised early and referred rapidly and appropriately. The earlier they are sent to us, the higher the chance that we will be able to cure them. Sometimes I feel like we’re fighting a losing battle as kids get to us so late. Their parents and caregivers have often gone from clinic to clinic, doctor to doctor, and the signs which seem blindingly obvious to us, have not declared themselves to the healthcare professionals and these children eventually reach paediatric oncology units with cancer that is late stage and much more difficult to treat.

Here’s to increased awareness and more lives saved – Happy New Year, everyone!