I was 15 when both of my parents were diagnosed with cancer – within the span of one week. My dog, Freckles, also died that same week from cancer.
You know that magic trick where there’s a beautiful dinner table set for a bunch of people – with a tablecloth and all the china, crystal, and lit candles? Then the magician somehow rips out the tablecloth and all the tableware stays put?
Well that’s just a show. The way I felt at the end of that week was that the tablecloth had been pulled out from under my life and nothing ever remained the same.
My father succumbed to a short and valiant struggle with colon cancer. He died, at the age of 62, three months later, just after my 16th birthday. My mom survived breast cancer and lived another blessed 20 years.
During the first month of this ordeal, both parents were in the hospital – they were next-door neighbors, room 5401 and 5403. My sister and I would come to the hospital every morning and stay all day. After they left the hospital, my sister returned to college and I became the caregiver at home for two very sick parents – all while I was a junior in high school.
This drama and trauma happened in 1971 – exactly 40 years ago, and I remember the details as if it was yesterday (and I hate clichés). As lucky as I was to have a loving sister and many close family friends, this journey was a tremendous challenge. I felt alone and helpless, even as I tried to keep a smile on my face each day.
In fact, during the three months between my parents’ diagnoses and my father’s death, I began to have severe breast pain. The pain was so strong I could not sleep. I knew I was also dying, but felt that I should just keep this information to myself. There was enough craziness. I could not tell anyone, I was not yet able to drive, and how could I burden anyone with this knowledge that wasn’t already also distraught? It was an era when seeking therapy was not only taboo, but also cost prohibitive.
I strongly urge medical teams to have someone on their team that can talk to the involved children. I wish I had had the benefit of a counselor, social worker, or a nurse to share my fear, psychosomatic pain, concerns, and loss.
When families deal with health crises, the children need help as well. All the plates, glasses, and silverware end up on the floor, on the ceiling, on the sidewalk. It’s a really messy time.
NOTE TO MY BLOG READERS: This is not my usual type of blog. The Chair of the Palliative Care Department at Baylor Hospital asked me to write about this personal experience. This forward-thinking department has just hired a counselor to work with families that face medical challenges.
One thing to note from a communication perspective about a medical issue such as the one I faced when I was a teenager – is the power of listening. Rachel, my Marketing Assistant, is doing a 6-part series on listening skills. I wish someone had given an opportunity to vent when I was going through this most difficult time.