Cancer, When Cancer Comes Home, Words of Endurance

There’s no such thing as a small soul.

Children may be small in stature, but we adults make a critical error if we assume that their smaller stature mirrors a lesser capacity to experience emotion, spiritual depth, and heartbreak. The minds, souls, and spirits of children are just as real, viable, and dynamic as those of adults. So when cancer comes to their home, they may feel its presence just as profoundly and powerfully as adults—they simply lack the wisdom gained from life experiences to help them understand and cope with this mysterious, unwelcome, and threatening intruder. They need the wise guidance of adults to help them navigate cancer’s troubled waters.

What children rarely lack, however, is the ability to be honest and the willingness to share how they see things. Notice the honesty and depth of feeling in eleven-year-old Mark Haskin’s letter to Dave about his brother’s cancer:

When I heard the bad news, I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know if I was sad or mad or if I was afraid. The reason I didn’t know how to feel was because I didn’t know what cancer was. But when my parents told me it is an illness that some people could die from, I was kind of sad and afraid at the same time.
Soon my brother Brian started getting chemotherapy treatments. That is when I started feeling sorry for him. I felt sorry for him because he got his treatments through needles. At home, he had to get a shot once a day. I usually got his stuffed animal for him because he wanted something to squeeze when he was getting his shot. When he was at the hospital getting his treatments, I visited him there. I would look at him all sick and miserable, lying in his bed. I just felt like taking his place so he could feel better and be able to run around and play with his friends. But on the other hand, I was thinking, I’m glad I’m not in his shoes.
Sometimes I was mad because there were things I wanted to do, like have a friend sleep over, but I couldn’t because Brian was in the hospital and my parents had to be with him. It seemed like it was spoiling my life.
At night when I was lying in bed, I would ask God, “Why does this have to happen to Brian? If we lost him it would destroy our whole family.” Then I realized that God has a reason for everything He does and I know that it is a good reason, even though it does not seem like it at the time.
Brian has been cancer free for almost one year now. When I lie in bed now I thank God for healing Brian and answering my prayers.

Parents who realize how deeply their well children feel cancer’s impact and make efforts to bring them along the journey are a great help to their children. In Mark’s case, his parents told him the truth. He knew the illness was serious. He connected with what his brother was going through. He had the opportunity to express compassion for his brother by supporting him through prayer and practical assistance.

But it isn’t easy for parents to know where to draw the line on truth—how much they should tell or when. One guideline is to remember that your goal is trust. Trust is the glue that holds a family together, and trust is built on truth. How much truth should be shared varies with each child’s age, temperament, and emotional maturity because no two children will react to the same information in the same way.

One obstacle to telling the truth is fear of how the child will react. A child’s crying or display of intense emotion may be uncomfortable or even unpleasant, but it is normal and appropriate to feel deep and disturbing feelings when a family member is seriously ill. On the other extreme, some children are slow to express their feelings openly and may need encouragement, even “permission,” to do so. When children aren’t given a safe, loving environment in which to express their deep emotions, they may, like a shaken soda can, explode under the pressure.

Although it may seem easier to ignore the truth, the potential consequences of shielding children from it are devastating. Children will sense that something is wrong. They will feel anxiety. And when they aren’t told the truth, they will draw their own conclusions—wrong conclusions. They may, for example, conclude that they are to blame for what is happen-ing, assume that things are far worse than they really are, or fear that the cancer will spread to them. These are terrible burdens for children to bear.

Just by knowing what is going on, children can begin to cope. By actively teaching their children to cope with the reality of cancer, parents are teaching them how to live successfully, and that’s what a parent’s job is. As Dr. Wendy Harpham says, “The greatest gift you can give your children is not protection from change, loss, pain or stress, but the confidence and tools to cope and grow with all that life has to offer.”*

Of course, we need wisdom to know when, what, and how to tell our children the truth—and wisdom is available to us. The Bible promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). So ask God to give you the wisdom to know what to say and the discernment to discover and touch the needs of your child’s heart.

Wisdom is needed because your task isn’t easy. When the whirlwind of life with cancer strikes a family, spiritual and emotional needs increase just as the time and energy to meet them decreases. No matter how attentive or committed a parent you are, some needs will go unmet.

One night, Debra Johnson discovered an unmet need. Her son Andrew had recently undergone a below-the-knee amputation to arrest the spread of bone cancer. As Debra tucked her six-year-old daughter Natalie into bed, Natalie slowly and deliberately looked over her entire body. Finally, she announced that she wanted to have her little finger amputated! Debra convinced her otherwise, but the request revealed how much Natalie, the youngest of five children, missed the attention her brother was now receiving.

Even in the midst of the whirlwind, parents can take steps to minimize cancer’s impact:

  • As much as possible, allow children to maintain their own interests and activities. Doing so will help them feel normal. It will help them realize that life will go on and that they can pursue their dreams. If needed, enlist the help of others to drive them to lessons, sports events, and birthday parties.

  • Stick to the same family routine whenever possible. Bedtime, mealtime, chores, and behavioral rules shouldn’t change. Structure nurtures stability and security—key components of emotional well-being.

  • Watch for warning signs that a child is struggling—behavioral and sleep changes, trouble at school, and difficulties with friends. If you suspect trouble, set aside special time with that child—perhaps a meal at the child’s favorite restaurant, seeing a movie, or taking a walk. Provide the environment and attention they need to share what’s troubling them. If needed, seek the help of a pastor or counselor.

And remember, no matter how hard you try, you can’t do it all. Early in her husband Chad’s battle with Lou Gehrig’s dis-ease, Beth Risley recognized her limitations in meeting her children’s individual needs. She knew outside help was essential, so for the past fifteen years, she has prayed this prayer: You are my Father and the true Father of our children. Please help my children to trust You. Please answer their questions, be there when I can’t, and watch over them. Make me aware of the needs in their life that I can meet. I trust You to meet the rest. You are my Father and the true Father of our children. Please help my children to trust You. Please answer their questions, be there when I can’t, and watch over them. Make me aware of the needs in their life that I can meet. I trust You to meet the rest.

Her prayer points to the one reality in the unpredictable life of cancer that is pre-dictable—the loving care of our heavenly Father. He is the only one who knows for sure what will happen, will never leave them, can heal their deepest hurts and wounds. He is the sure and steadfast anchor they need the most.

By teaching our children to trust God and seek Him daily, we strengthen their ability to cope and even grow through the hardship of cancer. As with any other truth we seek to teach our children, they learn best displayed daily, it reinforces their own. And this most important training comes with a written guarantee: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it” (Proverbs 22:6).


Cancer, Pain, When Cancer Comes Home, Words of Endurance

by Jan Dravecky

When Dave had cancer, it seemed as if it was just happening to us—to Dave, the children, and me. It wasn’t until years later that I began to understand that cancer happened to Dave’s parents and brothers as well.

We maintained close contact with Dave’s parents throughout his cancer battle, and they made a ton of sacrifices for us. Despite our close contact, I was so overwhelmed by my pain that I overlooked the depth of pain they were experiencing. When Dave had his third surgery, we were living in Ohio and the hospital was in New York. I planned to go to New York with Dave, but the children would stay in Ohio. As they had so many times before, Dave’s parents asked how they could help. I told them that it was hard for me to leave the children but that I felt best when the children were in their care. So they cared for our children in Ohio while a friend accompanied me to New York.

I was so overwhelmed by my pain that I overlooked the depth of pain they were experiencing.

I had no idea at the time how difficult that was. Dave’s Mom had been by his side for all of his previous surgeries, and she has since said that being in Ohio while her son was in surgery hundreds of miles away was the hardest thing she’s ever had to do. I regret that I overlooked their parental love for their adult son and was not more sensitive to their pain. I am for-ever grateful for the sacrifices they made for us during that difficult time.


Cancer, When Cancer Comes Home, Words of Endurance

Pray together consistently.

Prayer is a great source of strength and unity for any couple, and it can be particularly helpful when you face a crisis. Statistics show that couples who pray regularly together have fewer marital conflicts. So practice bring-ing God into your situation. Set aside a regular time to pray with one another over each day’s needs and express the concerns that weigh on each of your hearts.

Recognize that both of you have needs

—needs that you may never have had before. Be consistent and persistent in finding out your spouse’s needs, even the ones you aren’t able to meet personally. When you care enough to ask and then pray for the needs you aren’t able to meet, you send a powerful message of love and concern.

Work at two-way communication.

Conversations between spouses often focus on the daily cancer battle. Make an effort to focus conversation on the well spouse too. And when you talk, share about more than just the events that are happening around you. Focus on the personal side of the challenges you each face. Share how you are feeling about and dealing with those challenges on the emotional and spiritual levels.

Encourage refreshment.

Both the patient and the well spouse need times of rest and enjoyment. So give one another permission and your blessing to do something enjoyable. An overnight stay or a special outing with one of the children might be just what’s needed to provide a renewed perspective.

Accept help.

If someone offers to help with daily tasks or household chores, jump at the opportunity to lighten the load. Make sure children in the family are carrying their share of household responsibilities as well. They sometimes slack off on home responsibilities when their parents are preoccupied, and (despite their protests) their sense of security and self-esteem will be enhanced when they help out.

Enlist help.

Yourchurch, neighbors, relatives, friends, hospice and cancer support groups are available to help shoulder the burden. Use their services. Be open to seeking wise counsel. A third party will often help you see things more clearly. You don’t have to “go it alone.”


Depression, Grief, Pain, When Cancer Comes Home, Words of Endurance

The Bible describes a married couple as becoming “one flesh” (see Genesis 2:24). And the union that marriage brings is felt keenly when one has to battle cancer. Although only one of the members of that union may be diagnosed with the dis-ease, both are profoundly affected by it. In fact, many cancer patients say that the cancer battle is actually more difficult for their well spouse. One patient said, “My wife has suffered more than I have. She is the one who has had to deal with the issues of life and the ramifications of my illness. I have been too busy fighting the disease to deal with anything else.”

Yet while the cancer battle rages, the needs of the well spouse are often overlooked. And those needs are great. When one spouse is diagnosed with cancer, the scales of responsibility tip heavily in the well spouse’s direction. The well spouse runs from home front to battlefront offering updates, providing moral support, and stocking both fronts with necessary supplies.

Comfortable and secure daily routines are upended for everyone in the family, particularly the well spouse. The wife who stayed home to care for her family may find herself struggling to adjust to her new role as sole provider. She may feel guilty over her inability to “be there” for her children. The husband whose wife has handled most of the household and family responsibilities suddenly finds his orderly and efficient home in chaos. He struggles to balance career, household duties, and family activities.

Even more unsettling are the sudden, dramatic changes that occur in the couple’s relationship. The primary caregiver in the family may become the care receiver. The breadwinner may be unable to work and may watch helplessly as the well spouse increases the workload in order to make ends meet. In addition to role changes, the well spouse must carry the additional load of routine tasks that the sick spouse can no longer manage. The relational stresses that these adjustments bring are significant—even when circumstances are ideal. Imagine going through them under cancer’s looming shadow!

So it’s not uncommon for a well spouse to feel utterly overwhelmed and totally alone. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s important to realize that your feelings of inadequacy are not due to weakness or lack of character—the reality is, your life has been turned upside down. Furthermore, much of what you face you face alone. Your spouse is often unable to provide adequate support and most people around you don’t realize the burden you carry.

But you are not alone. Many other husbands and wives walk the same lonely, difficult road. They, too, are weighted down by a similar burden. At the Outreach of Hope, we hear the anguish of your hearts:

We can’t talk about my fears. She has her own. And if we combined our fears, the emotional weight would bury us alive.
We never talk about the little things anymore. There are too many big things clamoring for our time and attention.
We haven’t held each other for so long. Our time is totally consumed with treatment schedules, trips to the pharmacy, insurance paperwork, and trying to juggle our dwindling resources.
I feel so selfish if I share my needs. They can’t begin to compare with her daily struggle of treatment, its side effects, and the emotional and spiritual weight of her cancer battle.

It’s confusing, frightening, and exhausting to be the well spouse. As the main support person for the family, the well spouse often “runs on empty”—meet-ing everyone’s needs but his or her own. They may deny their own pain or the severity of their condition in order to keep from adding more stress to an already stressful situation. But just as the deposit/withdrawal principle applies to a bank account, it applies to our emotional, physical, and spiritual health. When a well spouse neglects taking time for rest, reflection, or refreshment, the account will eventually be overdrawn, putting the well spouse at risk for illness or depression. While others focus their attention on the battlefront—on the cancer patient—the needs of the well spouse remain unnoticed and unmet. But when the well spouse suffers, everyone in the family suffers.

So those who would be encouragers to a family or couple suffering under cancer’s attack would do well to step back from the battlefront and notice the weary soul behind the action. As one cancer patient said, “People always call and want to know how I am doing. But I want them to ask my wife how she is doing. I want someone to worry and fuss over her. That’s the best thing they can do for me.”