What's Behind the Mask of a Cancer Dad?

Men can be a different sort. We can think differently, share differently and act a different way. We can also deal with stress and grief differently. As fathers of children with cancer or other life-threatening illness, we must lead through a heartbreaking struggle with no discernible direction while somehow trying to cope with raw emotions that can be completely foreign to us. After all, we’re “supposed to” have it all together — at least that’s what we’ve been told. There are mothers in our community who might feel this way, too.

the author pushing his daughter in a wheelchair, both of them laughing together and wearing Smiley for Kylie t-shirts

The author with his daughter

I can’t speak for all dads, but under a condition of anonymity, I collected some things we dads of children with cancer are feeling behind our stoic faces. Some are the fathers of survivors, some are in treatment now, and others have lost their child. While we might try not to show it, we do feel… we ache…and we hurt — often in private so no one else will see.

These are things I think you should know…

I think you should know I have no idea what I’m doing.

I think you should know I’ve steered clear of counseling because I’ve always thought I was above that, but there is so much I need to get this off my chest.

I think you should know that a few drinks in the evening is the only way my mind shuts off enough to sleep.

I think you should know I can’t sleep in long bursts. I am basically tired all the time. Yeah, I tried Ambien but felt so drugged that I decided sleep deprivation was better.

I think you should know I’ve spent my life being told I shouldn’t cry and now I cry all the time which leaves me feeling unmanly and weak.

I think you should know this lack of direction is killing me. I would follow anyone who had a plan because I don’t have any idea how to lead this nightmare.

I think you should know I see everyone differently now. It’s hard to be around people who haven’t been through what I’ve been through and I don’t love hanging out with other guys going through this because it only brings it all to the surface.

I think you should know my wife is basically a stranger now. We look solid, but we don’t talk or communicate.

I think you should know I’m having problems relating to my other kids. They seem distant and I’m afraid to be close to another child.

I think you should know I have trouble concentrating and my work suffers. In fact, I don’t want to do this anymore but we need insurance so I’m stuck.

I think you should know that on some level I feel like this is my fault.

I think you should know that I would have died for my baby but wasn’t given the option.

I think you should know that not only did I wonder “Why my child?” but I have actually wondered “Why not somebody else’s?” which made me hate myself for my own cruelty.

I think you should also know that losing a child or having a child diagnosed with cancer or some other life-threatening disease provides you with significant perspective so that trivial things in life are just that.

I think you should know I feel I did everything humanly possible from a research standpoint before my son died, but now I wish I had spent more time with him.

I think you should know I replay every stupid investment or financial decision I ever made in my life that prevented us from taking part in additional treatment opportunities.

I think you should know I feel inadequate all the time.

I think you should know that every time I see on the news that some criminal that was shot several times only to survive and commit more crimes, I think, “WTF, God, really?”

I think you should know there is a measurable amount of guilt when you realize that you think more frequently about your deceased child than you did while they were alive and well.

I think you should know I am scared of not remembering the sound of my son’s voice.

I think you should know that up until my son passed away I never thought he would die.

I think you should know that my surviving son has to live with his parents’ continuous and irrational fear that something will happen to him — even in the most innocuous everyday activities.

I think you should know that I haven’t yet decided if I want to live.

I think you should know I feel guilty that my son is alive while so many other men’s sons are dead. And I am afraid that my son will die too.

I think you should know it is OK to talk about my son even though he passed away!

I think you should know that even though I look like I am doing fine, internally I am a mess. Every day is a struggle.

I think you should know that the words “I love you” are sincere and I use them more often than I did before diagnosis — and I mean it more.

I think you should know I have a hard time feeling sad for adults that pass compared to the loss of a child. I hate that I have a hard time feeling compassion for my friends who have lost parents recently.

I think you should know I’m lonely.

I think you should know I am always second-guessing whether our treatment plan was the right thing to do.

I think you should know I am afraid that the cure for my daughter’s cancer was so close to being available that it could have been used to save her. But I also really hope it is so that other children can be saved. Such thoughts leave me a twisted mess.

I think you should know my family looks well, but I live in fear of relapse.

I think you should know I still get very anxious when clinic is coming up, and at every bruise, weakness, tired feeling, or any other thing that might be a sign of a problem.

I think you should know that I hide my feelings and fears so my boy doesn’t think he has anything to worry about.

I think you should know that while I look confident, I’m scared as hell.

I think you should know I don’t get to show my fear and concern. So even when there are things that do warrant concern, I have to bottle it up, put on my confident face, and be the voice of reason when all the while, I’m scared to death.

I think you should know that sometimes I feel guilty for wanting to be numb or distracted because memories can be too painful at times.

I think you should know I’m not as strong as you say I am. I am weak and vulnerable. I cry behind closed doors and live in fear most days. I have learned to wear masks so that people don’t have to see what I don’t want them to. I crave normalcy but I’m not sure I will ever have it again.

I think you should know the simple tasks like yard clean-up and mowing can be extremely difficult. Not because of the work aspect of it but because it’s something my son loved to help do.

I think you should know, after 16 years, I still miss my boy!

I think you should know I lost myself somewhere in this journey and I can’t seem to find my way back.

The author with his daughter, both smiling

The author with his daughter

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

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