How My Parents Slowly Became The People I Needed Them To Be During Treatment

One of the most difficult aspects of having cancer – and there are so, so many – is dealing with one’s parents after diagnosis.  Probably the only thing worse than being told you have cancer is to have your child receive such horrifying news.  And although I was already a grown man (at least physically, if not exactly mentally) of forty when I received my leukemia diagnosis, I was then, and always will be, of course, my parents’ child. 

Sadly, my family is no stranger to serious health issues.  I am reluctantly carrying on a maternal-side family tradition of having blood cancer, as my mother’s father also had some form of leukemia, passing away when my mother was just 20, and my mom herself has tussled with lymphoma.  My father’s side of the family is also quite well-versed in major health problems, but they have shied away from cancer and instead have cardiac issues.  To each their own, I guess.  Compounding issues for my parents, however, is that my only sibling has cerebral palsy.  Although fortunately not life-shortening, being physically-challenged in that way – both in general and in our society in particular – is a tremendous weight to carry, principally for my sister but also for our parents. 

As a result, I was “supposed” to be the healthy one.  Other than more than my fair share of ear, nose and throat issues as a child – along with the requisite broken bones of boyhood – my health had largely been a non-issue.  Consequently, being accosted with no warning that their one healthy child was facing the disease which not only is among the most fear-inducing of all but one that had struck our family repeatedly had to have been devastating for my mother and father. 

Complicating matters immeasurably is that I am a child of the ‘70s/’80s, with parents who are kids of the early-to-mid 1940s.  That is important to realize because my parents are of an era where diseases and illnesses were not to be spoken of.  My parents grew up in families where death, which is mercifully a rare experience today, was all too familiar.  So although accustomed to the feelings of pain and loss and sorrow attendant with that earlier time, they also learned to “cope” with it by largely ignoring it, at least outwardly. 

Against that backdrop, my parents were essentially speechless about my leukemia for the first few years of my diagnosis.  Granted, I was in watch and wait mode, so there was little tangible evidence of what was going on inside my body or, perhaps more profoundly, inside my mind.  And I played into this by never volunteering information about my latest labs or when my appointments were to take place.  I was reticent in this way because I both did not want to talk about it – to anyone – lest it make it more real and even more a part of my consciousness and because part of me was, frankly, angry that they did not ask.  I essentially punished them by not telling them what was happening.  Like I said above, my maturity level is rather suspect. 

Of course, my parents love me unquestioningly and always have, something that I have never for a moment doubted.  My mother and father always took excellent care of me, and I never wanted for anything (unless, of course, one counts the ColecoVision that I so desperately “needed” when I was ten).  And I understood, as difficult as it was for me to accept, why it is so hard for them to fully acknowledge that their child has incurable cancer.  Nevertheless, we are always our parents’ children, no matter how old we become and the dynamic that results from that relationship is largely unalterable.  In other words, I needed my parents to just be my mom and dad. 

For better and for worse, matters changed markedly when I finally was told by my oncologist that I needed to begin chemotherapy.  At that point, there was no more acting as if the terrible reality was just theoretical.  And my parents, despite how inconceivably difficult it must have been for them, rose to the challenge.  Although they live far away, they came repeatedly during my rounds of chemo.  Outwardly they would say they were present to help with the kids, the dog, the house and the other aspects of life that had to continue.  But I knew that the real reason they were with me was because I am, after all, their son. 

Now, if one was reading closely and does a little math, it would be apparent that my parents are in their 70s now.  People in their 70s are not known for their ability to change their psychological make-up.  So there were still some moments that made me crazy, not the least of which was the way they would dismiss my worries with a well-intentioned but all-too-cavalier, “It will all be fine.”  Neither of my parents are oncologists, much less soothsayers, so saying this was just as much to assuage their own anxieties as it was to benefit me, if not more so.  But it came from the right place, and that counts for a lot (no matter how much I may criticize them for it).

There is nothing good about cancer, that is undeniable.  And if I could do just about anything to not have it, I of course would.  But going through this over the years has made me more appreciative of how hard it is to have a child with cancer and the struggles my parents must overcome to address that reality.  I cannot fairly expect them to suddenly become people who they are not, but more importantly they have been the people that I have needed them to be.  And although it may sound trite to say this, the experience that we have been through – together – has brought us closer and made me much more appreciative of them and the time we still have to share.  (We just won’t tell each other that.)


Image courtesy of the author.