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What You Don’t Know About the Toughest of Cancer Dads

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Yesterday on Facebook I saw several posts referencing actor Ashton Kutcher’s request for changing tables added to men’s restrooms. While watching the Super Bowl this year, I viewed commercials urging dads to be better fathers. I think these are both signs of a strong movement to encourage dads to be better parents and teammates with their spouses. I couldn’t be more on board with these messages and have seen an increase in dads playing a more active role in their children’s upbringing. That includes me, who took a couple years to really grasp the importance of my role as a father and become an active parent in my kids’ lives. That especially became true when my 10-month-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.

As a childhood cancer parent vet (we’ve been at this for 19 months, so I guess that makes us veterans), I’ve seen countless fathers rise to the challenge of being Cancer Dads — whether that’s cleaning up vomit or stools, holding a vomit bucket while your child endlessly empties their insides, squeezing into a tiny bed with your child overnight in the hospital or delivering countless meds through syringes and shots. I’ve witnessed ordinary dads becoming extraordinary. I’ve seen ordinary moms do the same.

However, judging by the articles and comments I see out there, you’d never know that many dads play an active role in their child’s cancer fight. From the numerous “Things Only Cancer Moms Know” articles (that have nothing mom-specific listed) to the term “Momcologist,” the overwhelming majority of articles on cancer parents only focus on the mothers. Every time I see one, I always type a frustrated “…and dads” or “…cancer parents” in the comment section. We even see it on my daughter Sally’s and other childhood cancer patients’ Facebook pages — many comments are specifically directed at the mothers, not both parents. I can’t tell you how many private messages we receive directed only to my wife Nicole, when I’m the one who reads most of them and handles the replies.


Mind you, in no way am I diminishing Cancer Moms — quite the contrary. The majority of the responsibility often falls to mothers. One of these past Cancer Mom articles actually brought up a valid point: moms create and carry our children for months, so they feel a sense of (unwarranted) responsibility for their children’s cancer that fathers cannot. Dads can’t breastfeed. Dads don’t give the same reassuring motherly snuggles. Moms have a special nurturing skill that’s survived years of evolution. Frankly, most moms do it better.

However that does not and should not discount the roles many Cancer Dads play. Every time I visit the hospital I see plenty of fathers and grandfathers, many of whom are my friends. Through social media I’ve become friendly with Cancer Dads all over the country, the only other guys who can relate to how I feel and vice versa. We’re often relegated to supporting roles not by choice but by need. In many cases it’s the father who has no choice but to keep his full-time job to maintain the funds needed for living expenses, hospital bills and healthcare insurance. I’ll tell you firsthand (and from the knowledge of speaking with other Cancer Dads) that coming to the office every day and not being there for your child who’s fighting a life-threatening disease is incredibly frustrating. It leaves us feeling useless.

None of us is at our best through this journey. Even at work, no magical switch shuts off the immense stress and worry we feel about our family. It’s hard to focus; anybody who’s worked through an eight-hour workday with a hangover can somewhat relate. Imagine working with a hangover every day for months or years. Try showing up at work for a busy day of meetings after a night where you rushed your child to the hospital for a seizure that lasted 45 minutes and landed her in the PICU. You come to work with the added stress of knowing you’re unintentionally not performing to your potential. That comes with a lot of guilt. I know parents who have not been able to maintain their jobs as a result of the stress and exhaustion.

We’re dads. We’re supposed to be the tough ones who rush to the rescue of our kids — especially those of us with little girls. We idolize ourselves as their protectors. Instead, while Mom is at the hospital working with the doctors and nurses on saving our child’s life, we’re often restricted to our desks, doing our best to keep our jobs, feeling helpless and listening to meaningless office gossip. I hear all updates second-hand from my wife and rarely get to ask questions directly to the doctors. I keep a log of all of Sally’s treatment and blood counts so I feel involved. Nicole grows frustrated when I don’t recall something she’s relayed to me, but it’s harder to grasp everything when you’re hearing it all in one conversation instead of living it day in and day out. It’s hard to understand how a certain medicine works in the grand scheme of things and remember specific doses. It creates a tension that likely wouldn’t be as strong if we were both at the hospital daily.

With Mom focusing more on our child in need, Dad often shoulders more of the responsibility at home, especially with siblings. While Nicole would rush off to the hospital with Sally in the middle of the night (which was often in our first year), the duty of informing our sons fell to me. There’s nothing quite like breaking the news to your 7 and 4-year-old that their little sister had to be rushed into the hospital again and somebody not named Mom or Dad would handle school carpools the rest of the week. There’s nothing quite like answering all the questions they have, like is their sister going to die? Or explaining what a seizure is. There’s also the added day-to-day roles Dad often picks up so Mom can get some much-needed, much-deserved sleep.

Childhood cancer can add stress to both the strongest and weakest of marriages. Due to the lack of sleep, mood swings and increased responsibilities, it’s vital that parents work together as a team both to save their child’s life and maintain their relationship. We know parents who have split up during and after treatment. We know moms and dads who are going through this alone. Our hearts go out to them; we admire their strength and can’t fathom the challenges they must overcome.

I echo fellow Cancer Dad Jeff Hendrix of “Praying for Carolyn in calling on dads and men to play a more active role both in their families and in the childhood cancer community. It shouldn’t take cancer to inspire dads to become more active parents — anyone can and should do it. I also want to call attention to the incredible Cancer Dads I’ve met through our journey, some of whom I’ve sadly witnessed eulogize their children in recent weeks. If there’s any validity to the term “Act like a man,” it’s these dads who have risen to the ultimate challenge and worked as a team with their spouses to fight this evil monster. If you know one or are married to one be sure to tell them they’re doing a good job, even if what they’re doing isn’t always seen.

Not Cancer Moms. Not Cancer Dads.

Cancer Parents.


A version of this post appeared on Sweet Sally Sunshine.

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Originally published: May 14, 2015
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