Crap, it’s cancer: parenting during a health crisis

Guest post by jane
By: Ryan VaarsiCC BY 2.0

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.

Comments on Crap, it’s cancer: parenting during a health crisis

  1. Thanks so much for sharing. Sounds like you all are doing a really wonderful job at dealing with all of this! Its so great that you have each other and your other family and friends during this super hard time. Best of luck!

  2. Great advice for dealing with any really difficult issue: You can’t be perfect parents all the time, and it’s important to remember to take care of yourself. Best of luck to you and your family. We’re all rooting for you guys.

  3. I love the honesty that you are giving to your children. That is best way to prepare them for the real world and real life. Your advice is great and I commend for you integrating the balance into your life and your family’s lives. I have friends that commit their entire being to others and it’s soo taxing to do so. You evetually burnout. Positive thoughts and energy go out to you and your family.

  4. You’re doing an awesome job. I’m on the other side of things. I had a stroke last month and have had to deal with suddenly being a disabled parent. My husband is in shoes similar to yours and some days I feel like he has it worse than I do. It’s a lot to keep the family together. You rock 🙂

  5. This is so true and made me feel a whole lot better. Our situation is slightly different, with my sister-in-law going through terminal cancer, but it affects my husband a great deal. With a newborn arriving sometime next month, there are times that we both feel we’re not doing things right. The best we can do is love each other and the future baby, take care of ourselves, and live our lives as ‘normally’ as possible on a day-to-day routine.

  6. It is interesting to read the perspective that a caregiver or other family member has about Cancer. The positive attitude is im sure much easier to maintain so its good to have someone to pick up the situation. A year ago the same weekend of my daughters 2nd birthday I was diagnosed with a week to live if untreated with a very rare form of Leukemia. I had to be hospitalized for 45 days and still have another year of treatment left. She was a bit too young to comprehend what was going on so we just kept it really basic mommy is sick and has to stay in the hospital till she gets home. We Skyped a lot and it was a bit confusing for her to see mommy with no hair but she smiled and touched mine hers and my husbands who shaves his head and said all the same! Kids are pretty tough. I have days where I cry and she comforts me although I try not to cry in front of her it’s the reality of Cancer. It helps her understand what it means to show compassion for others. I am not working as my treatment is very extensive and I am sick a lot but the truth is just having the time with my daughter means the world to me. From having a Cancer of the immune system we can’t be around too many people or I can get very sick. I have guilt because she has a desire to go to school but we have to wait a bit longer until my immune system stabilizes. We had people offer to help with dinners here and there in beginning but now the novelty has fizzled out and not that many people ask if we need help. I think after a while sickness takes its toll and for some people out of sight out of mind; but I definitely welcome any help when it’s offered. Thanks for writing the blog very cool a friend shared it with me on FB.

  7. Cancer is always a difficult thing. Here’s a couple tips if you have a teen-aged child. My big brother was diagnosed with leukemia when I was 16, 2 weeks after he graduated college. My brother is 5 years older than me, and I have always looked up to him. It was a very scary time.

    Tell them the truth. It’s scary, but teenagers can and will understand what’s happening – especially with the internet at their disposal.

    Give them more responsibility, but make sure to not forget about them. My parents trusted me to get to where I needed to be while my brother was in the hospital. I could handle that. Thankfully I was old enough to drive and my parents could spare a car if I dropped them off at the hospital.

    Something that really helped me was that my parents made certain not to forget my birthday. Birthdays have never been big in my family, but they went out of their way to make certain that I had pie (much better than cake) and that we went out to dinner. This was a month after he had first been diagnosed and when he was undergoing major rounds of chemo.

    Make certain that even if they might be apprehensive that they visit the person at the hospital. Not really knowing is so much worse. But please warn them what’s happening. Thankfully my mother had warned me about the bubble they had to put in my brother’s head in order to administer medicine past the brain blood barrier. It would have completely freaked me out and the last thing my brother needed was to feel even more like a freak.

    BTW, I’m now 21 and my brother is free of cancer and has a job in mechanical engineering.

  8. This is a beautiful article. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom, Jane! My husband’s mother passed away from colon cancer when he was a teenager. As horrible as it was for him, I think that it really shaped him into the sensitive and responsible man he became. One of the most important things for him was having a supportive community to help with all of the mundane things (meals, chores) and he has been great about doing those things for others in his adult life. Keep doing what you’re doing and thanks again for sharing!

  9. Thank you for this article. It’s very timely for me as I have a 15 month old and am having the last scan today to see if there are any more carcinoid tumours in my abdomen (the one they found was a fluke when having my appendix out a couple of weeks ago). The scariest part of it has been the thought of leaving my Little Dragon with no mama. It’s funny how things pop up just when you need to see them. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  10. What an inspiring article! While I hope that nothing like this strikes my family, I am realistic…. I am going to keep your article around as advice for parenting under any crisis, not just a health crisis. I wish your husband health, and your whole family happiness!

  11. Thank you very much for writing such an insightful article about your family’s situation. I hope that you are able to soldier through this hard time and see good times ahead with your partner and children. I cannot imagine how scary it must be to watch your partner go through this, how alone you must feel, and how much strength you need to get through the day and care for your children. You are truly inspiring!

    To offer some perspective, I was a teen when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m not speaking for your children but just want to offer some perspective on how your children might remember and learn from this time. It was really scary when my mom found the lump, waited for doctor’s appointments, had surgery, chemo, and radiation. It was also scary watching my father break down when he heard the news. I think the worst part was listening to my mother cry in the middle of the night when she thought we were all sleeping. But what surprised me the most was this perception I had that families tackling illness somehow always saw the bright side of the situation, but that is not true. We all got sad, angry, frustrated, and apathetic and it all happened at different times! I swear as soon as my mom was okay looking at herself in the mirror with less hair and more weight, it hit my dad just how sick she was and made me angry that our family had to deal with this. Oh the fights that ensued! But you know what, that is okay. The whole situation taught me how to deal with less-than-pleasant feelings and allowed me to come to terms with a me that cannot always fake a happy demeanor, and taught me how to handle all those negative feelings that I never experienced quite so acutely. Never underestimate an opportunity to teach your kids, even if it is how to be sad and angry. Those are important emotions that we are all entitled to.

    Mayhap you can write another article when things change again, like he transitions from treatment to remission, which I hope is soon. I know that was a tough time for our family too. I sincerely wish your family the best and you’re in my thoughts.

  12. Ashlee I think I am at the stage where I can relate to what you are saying more. I mean I just punched a hole in the door last night because I have to go back to the hosptial because of infections and my husband kind of shut down not saying anything. Cancer is not as easy as people can make it sound. In later states a lot of anger, frustration, sadness comes out and you are right it is so important to be able to express those feelings too to work through them. When you said the worst thing you remember is your mom crying at night. I do that a lot and one time my daughter woke up and was upset to see me crying. Its hard I dont want to expose her to everything. I want her to think mommy is gonna be ok but like you said it helps us see that life is not as easy as we hope it would be sometimes.

  13. Thanks so much for the lovely comments, everyone. (I wrote the article). Yes, here I did try to focus on the positive, but it is very very hard, as you awesome ladies no doubt know. I find that when I’m feeling angry it’s often because I’m really sad, and it’s hard to be so emotionally vulnerable around the kids. A little bit, sure, but a lot is unfair to them.

    Has anyone found (or looked, frankly) for a good support group for people with young children? There are groups out there for “young people/caregivers” but I really think that the whole dynamic is different when there are children living at home vs. not.

    For those of you dealing with this firsthand, good luck. I hope that there are many many bright times ahead. And thanks again for the nice words.

  14. Jane – I’m not sure if there is one near you, but “Gilda’s Club” offers support for the families and friends (including children) of people with cancer. There are locations throughout the US, and I’ve had great experiences with one in my city. They have events for families and young children, and there are many opportunities to get involved.

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