My husband was diagnosed with rectal cancer in February 2011. He turned 40 only one month before. I’m only 31. We have a six-year old daughter and a three-year old son.
Certainly, our world was turned upside down. Most of that initial meeting is a blur, but I clearly remember saying, “But we have young kids!” Parenting in the face of a health crisis is not something that I would wish on anyone, but we’re navigating these waters as best we can, hoping that we’ll emerge a stronger family on the other end. Here’s some of what we’ve tried to do as parents and people.
Practice age-appropriate honesty
We made the choice not to use the word “cancer.” It wouldn’t have meant anything to our son, and it held potentially scary connotations for our daughter. We did tell them that Daddy had something growing in his body that could make him sick, and doctors were going to have to give him special medicine to help get rid of it. They both seemed okay with that explanation.
Don’t hide the negative side effects of treatment
The chemotherapy made him tired. The radiation caused pain. The surgery landed him in the hospital for three days, and with a temporary ileostomy for at least a few months. At each stage we explained what was going on, like why Daddy had to take medicine that made him feel bad. We showed them the pump that delivered the chemotherapy. We let them see the stitches down his belly, and took them into the hospital to bring him home. I think we both felt that there was no reason to be embarrassed or hide things; there’s nothing shameful about cancer or treatment or being sick or feeling lousy.
Maintain as normal a pace of life as possible
I am a high school teacher, and I continued working. My husband works as much as he can given whatever treatment he’s undergoing. The kids kept going to school and daycare, having playdates with friends, going to the park, etc. Perhaps most importantly, they still have rules and expectations. Even though this is a lot for little people (and big people) to have to deal with, it’s not a “get out of jail free” card. It has always been very important to us to raise polite and respectful children. Those expectations haven’t changed. I believe that children thrive when they have clear boundaries. I think that they’ve found a kind of security that the diagnosis didn’t change around their whole world.
Tap into support networks
Our family and friends have been truly amazing, offering to bring us meals, taking the kids for the afternoon, providing shoulders to lean on. I’ve had to learn to swallow my pride and say, “Thank you so much, it would be lovely for you to bring dinner,” rather than, “No, we’re doing fine. Thanks so much for the offer.” Doing this has afforded me the unique opportunity to teach my children, especially my six-year-old, about both compassion and grace. I’ve told her that people are helping us because they care about us, and that when people we love get sick we help them. Hopefully this fosters in them a sense of doing for others, of community, and of the blessing of kindness.
Remember to take care of YOU
When my husband was up for it, I went out for our monthly “girl’s night out.” I took a weekend day and went shopping. I started seeing a therapist. I realized that I would be no kind of mother, wife, or person if I spent all my time caring for my students, my children, and my husband and left nothing for myself.
My experience is only one. We’re lucky that it was caught early, that the prognosis is very good, that we live nearby world-class hospitals, and that we have a network of supportive family and friends close-by. We’re lucky that my husband had purchased excellent disability and life insurance. (Please, please, please purchase disability and life insurance. When you need it you can’t get it. Getting it and a will is the best thing that you can do to protect your kids if you get sick. But I digress…)
Even with all that, the truth is that when your partner, your co-parent, the person that you love, has cancer, sometimes it just fucking sucks. Even with support, it’s lonely. It’s stressful. It’s sad. However, learning to accept that it’s okay parenting under less-than-ideal circumstances, leading to sometimes less-than-ideal parenting — yet the kids still seem to be doing alright — has been incredibly liberating. I’ve tried more to embrace the moment and take my joy from the joy of my children. My husband and I have truly been bowled over by the caring gestures of our family and friends; we hope that the children learn the value of cultivating those relationships on both the giving and receiving end.
There are days I feel that I’ve been thrown to the other side of the looking glass. Cancer, or any health crisis, will do that to you. But I try to remember that if at the end of the day the kids are going to bed pretty happy, then we’re doing the very best we can for all of us. And for now, that’s pretty good.