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What You'll Miss If You Turn Away From My Family's Cancer Story

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I recently talked to a support group about the experience my family has had with cancer. The years, the relapses, the “buy him time” treatments. Though I am not big on speaking, I am compelled to do these things because I don’t want anyone to feel alone in this. But as my kids get older, I wonder if my truth will scare others away from them.

My kids have never really known their dad without cancer. This is what is normal for them — it sounds sad and unfortunate, and it is, but I just want to say, “Please don’t define us by that.” Sometimes I wonder if a classmate’s parent were to read some of the things I’ve written or said, would they want their child to stay away from mine? Thinking, They must be broken. Or They must be messed up or sad, or Those parents must be absentee because they are dealing with cancer, for goodness sake! Do they picture a wrinkled-up man with tubes coming out of every orifice, and a wife too busy on the phone with doctors and insurance companies to watch her own kids? Do they picture a dirty home, with an empty fridge and bill collector letters coming through the mail everyday? Do they think, Oh, cancer means death. And that means she’ll be a single mother, which naturally means she’ll have two jobs and a sleazy boyfriend and the kids will try drugs and drag mine down into the gutter. Nope! Stay away from them! They’ll end up on an episode of “Investigation Discovery.”

Or am I wrong? Do they feel drawn, and called to us, more than if we were “normal,” to befriend us and help? Do they know I don’t need anything from them except to acknowledge it, while being treated as normal? Or do they worry they can’t take on a needy friend, one who may sucker them for babysitting or meals in the name of pity for my cancer house?

Unfortunately, I don’t know the answers to any of these questions because most people want to keep away — a 10-foot pole’s distance — from that sticky, sad stuff. They don’t know what to say, they don’t know how to act and their hearts are afraid of it all. I don’t know if they think I’m messed up or brave, because those truths lie in the recesses of their minds.

And if those classmate’s parents were to read about my husband, about how their father has had a recurring cancer for years, and they choose to turn away, there are a few things they would miss.

Because my kids have had to learn about hardship through real-life resilience, they will be better equipped to comfort yours if she’s sad, or his grandma dies, or their sweet hamster passes overnight.

Because my kids have had to wait for vacations or even a dinner out at the diner because their dad didn’t feel well, or we spent a lot on treatments lately, they will not be ungrateful when you give them a freezer-burnt ice cream cone at your house, or they get a cheap plastic bracelet in their gift bag. They’ll probably think it’s the best thing in the world.

Because my kids have had to watch us balance working, illness and family, and despite all of it, we’ve maintained our priorities and responsibilities, they will know that nothing comes easy. You have to work and you have to care. And when your child gets off track, mine will be an influence on them. One that speaks about how their mom kept a hopeful outlook and loved their dad completely. A mom who taught them about gratitude and God. A mom who taught them to do their chores, play outside and keep respectful friends by their side.

They’ll tell stories of their dad. How he built them a playground one summer when he was in remission. How he eats dinner with them every night, and tells them stories about jobs he’s had and the legacy of an unmatched work ethic and principals his dad taught him. My son will share all he learned from his dad about cars, from a Dodge utility van to a Ferrari. My daughter will tell you that he is the first man that ever loved her, and how he set the bar high for any other slug that comes along, and she knows how to read people, and say no.

My kids are loyal. People matter, and no, they haven’t had a “normal” childhood, but I like to think it’s made them better for it all. And if you stay away because you’re afraid, you’ll never know that, and you’ll never know them. And that would be the only thing that is sad.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us one thing your loved ones might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. What would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: May 26, 2016
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