A few years ago, another cancer mom asked me to write an article for a cancer newsletter she published every month. I wrote the following piece called, “When Cancer Comes To Call.”
Pediatric cancer never pays a visit to any family without changing it completely.
Dynamics are altered, financial challenges ensue, healthy siblings get less attention and family roles are invariably rearranged. Because of all those adjustments, a cancer family has to quickly learn many new coping skills to stay healthy; for our family, one of the most important skills was to maintain a strong sense of humor.
Case in point: When Sarah was in the middle of chemo for Neuroblastoma (with the bald head to prove it), she and her dad were looking at some of her Barbies. Steve was telling her that there used to be Barbies that could go from having long hair to short hair, just by turning a little knob in the doll’s back. Steve went on to say, “I wonder if they’ll ever make Chemo Barbies, where the hair just falls right out!”
A non-cancer person might say, “What an insensitive thing for a father to say to his sick daughter!” But Steve has been on the cancer journey long enough to know that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. He also knew that Sarah has a raucous, wacky sense of humor. Sure enough, Sarah threw back her (bald) head and just howled with merriment saying, “Chemo Barbie! That is so funny, Daddy!” Cancer humor helped them to bond and also helped to relieve the stress of what we were going through.
While they both enjoyed the laugh they shared over Chemo Barbie, there were are many other things they went through together that weren’t so funny. For instance, a few weeks later, Sarah was heading out for another round of chemo. As she was getting into the van Steve looked her in the eye and said, “Sweetie, I wish that I had gotten cancer instead of you so that you didn’t have to go through all these hard things.”
Those words were so special to Sarah that she repeated them to me several times over the next few months. She was incredibly touched by the sacrificial love that Steve expressed to her. There were many other times when cancer presented our family with the chance to speak words of affirmation and encouragement in the midst of dark times; those words and those experiences drew our family together in an incredible way.
Sarah’s brother, Nathan, was especially affected as he watched his sister suffer, get extra attention, throw up, go bald, receive gifts, go to the hospital, recover from surgeries and get high on morphine. He saw things happen within the walls of his family that most thirteen-year-old boys never have to witness. And he displayed such an incredible attitude through it all, even offering to learn to how to run her feeding pump so that he could deal with it in the middle of the night instead of waking up Steve and me. He came into her hospital room when she was feeling the worst and made her laugh when no one else could.
Best of all, on that long cancer journey, he developed a compassionate and tender heart that will serve him well in all areas of his life, but especially when he gets married and has children of his own. At what is usually a rather selfish stage of life, cancer taught him how to look beyond his own universe and embrace the happenings in the universe that his sister had unwillingly become a part of.
Because of Sarah’s many hospitalizations, during the first nine months of treatment our family was apart one out of every two days. Those separations made us truly appreciate the times we had together, the times when we could sit down at our own table and eat a home cooked meal without having to go through a cafeteria line at the hospital. We would talk and laugh and linger at the table, never sure of what the next day would hold but so very thankful for the moment we had. Cancer taught us to treasure the “right now” and not look too far ahead down a path that was filled with the ruts and bumps of a dire, depressing prognosis.
In the end, cancer did not steal our family’s happiness or our peace; instead it delivered to us–in a scary, ugly package–two beautiful gifts: the gift of learning to separate the petty things from the important things in life and the gift of treasuring each other.
Was our family changed when cancer came to call? Yes, it was.
And we are forever grateful.
Here are a couple more Sarah Snippets to follow up on the ones I posted last week:
Sarah Snippet One:
Sarah has to have her blood work monitored while she’s at home between treatments so we took off Tuesday morning to Blood Work World! (It’s kind of like Disney World, except not quite as much fun.)
When we got to our local hospital, we ensconced ourselves in the little waiting area to await our turn.
After Sarah had greeted the other lady in the room, commented on how cute her baby was and talked the ear off the receptionist, she turned her attention to the table of reading materials beside her.
Now Sarah is a Hospital Reading Material Connoisseur since she has seen a few hospital waiting rooms in her day. I watched as her practiced eye skimmed over the storybook, the coloring book. and the colorful children’s history book about Patrick Henry. Finally, her eyes lit on the perfect reading material for the well-seasoned, experienced hospital professional–an informational pamphlet on tests and scans.
She grabbed that thing up as if it were world-class literature and began to studiously peruse the contents therein.
Finally she turned to me and said, “Mom, they have a description of bone marrow aspirations in here.”
And then there was a long silence followed by, “Hmmmmm” and “Very interesting.”
Now the receptionist was used to Sarah so she didn’t give her a second thought. However, I noticed that another hospital employee in the room looked up from what she was doing and gave Sarah—and then me—a rather puzzled, startled glance. I could just hear her thinking, “Okay. I think I just saw a small child ignore a pile of children’s books and choose to read a medical brochure instead. And now she is casually pronouncing words like ‘aspiration’ and discussing the information like she actually knows something about it!”
She kept a close eye out as Sarah continued her way through the brochure, “Let’s see. There’s the bone scan. Yes, I’ve had that. Oh, and there’s a picture of the C.T. scan. Yup, I’ve done that a few times. Hmmm, let’s see what else they talk about here.”
By the time Sarah’s name was called, she had discussed with me all the pertinent points of the brochure with great interest and vast wisdom. She gave the still incredulous employee a cheerful grin and burst through the door to the room where her finger stick was to be done.
We were back there about six or seven minutes, the amount of time it took to draw two small tubes of blood. During that relatively short period of time, Sarah discussed with the technician the following subjects: Barbie dolls, horses, Sponge Bob, being a vet, the fort she had just built for Snowy, home schooling, her birthday, her brother’s birthday, Snowy’s birthday, her best friend, her best friend’s mother, her best friend’s little brother, and the dinner party we had just hosted. The technician always enjoys seeing Sarah and she smiled cheerily as she valiantly followed Sarah’s dizzying verbal hopscotch through her endless list of subjects.
I guess Sarah proved that Blood Work World CAN be fun after all—if you decide to make it fun, that is!
She took that attitude with her through her whole cancer journey.
Sarah has been home between chemo sessions but last Friday night her temperature started rising. She bravely listened to the thermometer readings each time I took them and finally when her temp hit 102.2 (anything over 102 is an automatic hospital admit) she sighed and said, “Well, it was good while it lasted!”
I had her rest on the couch while I packed our things. Steve took our luggage out to the van and then came to Sarah’s side door to kiss her good-bye before she and I pulled away. She looked up into his face and while she didn’t speak a word, huge tears pooled in her eyes. I think silent crying is even more heartbreaking than loud sobs and quiet sadness is more eloquent than a million words.
Steve gave her a big hug, then he and Nathan prayed with us and sent us on our way. An hour later, as we pulled into the hospital parking deck she said, “You know Mom, this hospital is a very important place because this is where they found my cancer and these are the people who saved my life. (We had told her that if the cancer hadn’t been diagnosed when it was, she would have only lived 2-3 more months.)
Sarah went on to say, “Even though dying would make me be in a much better place, I think that God is going to have to let me live a very long time so that I can get all the things on my list done. I think God has lots of plans for me!”