My father has cancer. Almost two months after his diagnosis it is still hard to believe. My father, the healthiest man I’ve ever known, has cancer. I understand that almost every person is affected by cancer at some point in their lives. Whether they are facing the battle themselves, supporting a loved one who is fighting, or lost a loved one to this horrible disease, every adult I know is or may be eventually struggling with what my family is struggling with now. I also know that people my age (fortyish) begin to recognize their parents’ mortality. While I am still young to lose a parent, more and more of my friends have and it’s time to start thinking about that inevitability. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t completely suck.
My father’s cancer battle is his and not for me to discuss. He has been incredibly forthcoming with details, however, to anyone who reaches out. He wants and needs the support of his friends and family and recognizes how important those kind words, thoughts, and prayers are to his overall attitude and spirits. He also wants others to take care of themselves, recognize and address any symptoms early, and get routine tests. His fight, however, has not been easy and, again, not for me to describe here. Instead, I want…actually I need…to describe a little of what it’s like to be his daughter right now.
Here’s how I’m feeling:
I’m angry. My father has spent his entire life doing for others. He took care of his parents and my mother’s parents when they needed him. He’s taken care of his younger siblings in various ways their entire lives. He worked three jobs late into the nights most of my childhood to be sure my siblings and I were well taken care of. He still takes care of us and our children providing us with whatever we may need whenever we ask. When he became a leader and manager within the company he worked for he took care of those who worked for him, always recognizing causes to celebrate or reaching out in times of crisis. He takes care of anyone else who needs him. Most recently he flew across the country and drove my cousin and all of her belongings back across so she didn’t have to make that trip to the East Coast on her own. My father retired almost one year to the day before his cancer diagnosis. He had one year to finally start doing things for himself. One year to slow down and enjoy the rewards of all of his hard work. And after one year of respite, and after sixty-something years of selflessness, he is faced with cancer. And that PISSES me off.
I’m anxious. The type of cancer my father has can have a genetic link. Since I’m over forty I need to go get some tests done. And I just can’t right now. I’m so worried about my father I couldn’t possibly face the same crisis myself right now. However, my anxiety over cancer, losing my father, or facing a cancer diagnosis for myself or for my husband right now is wreaking havoc with my sleep. I’m waking up in the middle of the night several times a week and staring at the ceiling, convinced another one of us is sick too. My father had a bad night and I woke up to a text that he had been hospitalized. Now I sleep with my phone next to me, waiting for another bad text. I texted each of my parents the other day to get a status update and it took them each some time to get back to me. Why? They had gone to church and to the diner for breakfast since my father was feeling really well that morning. Logically I figured that’s where they were. But my anxiety told me otherwise and I was five minutes away from calling when I finally got a reassuring, “I’m AOK” text from my dad. I don’t want to make any long-term plans, I don’t want to go too far, I don’t even want to think about any upcoming holiday or event that’s more than a few days out simply because I’m anxious about what “might” happen. Living this way is truly exhausting.
I’m sad. The first round of chemo was hard. My father was ill and began to change in appearance, right before my eyes. While I know, in my head, he has a good prognosis overall, watching the chemo poison him is so very hard. I know, in my head, that he is strong enough and healthy enough otherwise to kick cancer’s ass but my heart is breaking. I can’t imagine my life without my father in it. I almost refuse to even consider it. Cancer, however, is taunting me. It’s reminding me that my parents are not immortal. It’s threatening me, telling me it may take him from me. I’m sad for him. I’m sad for my mother. I’m sad for my children. When anyone asks me how I’m doing all I want to say is, “Well, I’m sad.” Sadness has a sneaky way of ruling your life. Every happy moment is somehow tainted because you’re sad. Every fun thing I plan is a little bit ruined because I’m sad. This summer, rather than soaking in the sun, enjoying my favorite season, and filling my days with fun, I’m…sad.
Here’s how I’m coping:
I’m talking. I am not keeping this to myself. I’ve reached out to friends and family and I just keep talking. The more I talk the better I feel. The more I talk the more information I get and knowledge IS power. I’ve only gotten advice, support, and love from anyone I’ve talked to and positive vibes and love is golden.
I’m taking care of myself. I’m exercising regularly. For me, an intense sweat-session always makes me feel better. I feel strong and powerful and proud of myself. That being said, some days I eat ice cream for lunch and that makes me happy too. I’m trying hard to not beat myself up. On any given day I’ll kick my own ass with some mom guilt, food guilt, or some other form of guilt related to me not being the best I can be. This summer I’m working really hard to just be. If I eat like crap for two days in a row, oh well. That food really tasted good. If I skip some workouts, no big deal. My body was emotionally exhausted and that turned into physical exhaustion and that’s just the way bodies work. I once read the phrase, “you can’t pour from an empty cup” and I’ve done my best to keep that in mind this summer. My father and my mother need me to be strong, rational, and available whenever they need me. My kids need me to keep doing all of the things I always do–feed them, care for them, drive them all over town, entertain them, and support them. I can’t do that if I don’t also take care of myself.
I’m trying to enjoy my summer with my kids. I know we will look back on this summer and describe it as, “the summer Dad/Grandpa had cancer”. Whenever we look at pictures or question why we didn’t do a usual summer event or tradition the explanation will be, “oh right, that’s the summer Dad/Grandpa had cancer”. As an educator, I’m off from work for the summer and usually that means my kids get easy, relaxed mom. I’m never in a rush, less stressed, more likely to say “yes” to pretty much anything. We are lazy, we laugh a lot, and we have fun. This summer my kids know their mom is struggling. They know when Grandpa isn’t feeling well, Mom has a lousy day. They’ve spent more days than usual doing, well, nothing, because I just couldn’t summon enough positive energy to do much. I haven’t wanted friends over and I don’t always want to be social myself. I’ve just wanted to zone out in front of the TV or my iPad and watch my phone for updates. But…I’m trying. We’ve gone to the beach more often this summer because the water is so peaceful and calming. I always feel better when I’m in the sun listening to the ocean. We took the kids away for a weekend in Cape Cod, even though we will be spending an entire week there mid-August, because I needed a break. We did nothing but eat, sit in the sun, play in the waves, and smile for three days. We make an effort, every day, to get out of the house, even if it’s just to go get some ice cream. I try to take a picture of one of my kids smiling or a video of one of them doing something silly, every day. I’m trying and I’m hoping that my kids’ overall memories of this summer will be positive.
We will get through this. I say “we” because cancer truly impacts every member of a family. My father is going to keep fighting and he’s going to be cancer free by next summer. I know it. He’s going to bounce and he’s going to get back to enjoying the life he’s built for himself, my mother, and us. The rest of us will get through too. We will keep supporting him, keep fighting off our own anger, anxiety, and sadness, and we will be there for him every step. The “summer of cancer” will end and life will get back to normal. In the meantime, I need to send out my love to those people in my life who have had MY back. You’re there when I need to vent, you make me laugh when I need it, and you’re sending my father and the rest of us love, prayers, and positive vibes daily. I love you all and I thank you.