All in the Family
And if one member suffers,
all the members suffer with it…
The apostle Paul referring to the family of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:26
Many people know that I had cancer, but many people don’t know that although I was a patient, I wasn’t the only one who suffered. My whole family battled cancer. Not one of us escaped its grasp.
When cancer comes home, every member of the family is launched on a new and challenging journey. Nobody knows quite what to do. Jan and I didn’t know what to do. We bumbled our way through it. We handled some things remarkably well, but in other ways we fell flat on our faces.
From the very beginning, we were totally honest with our children. That was good. It was also scary, especially when amputation became necessary. You see, our six-year-old son Jonathan was afraid of people who had physical handicaps. If he saw a child who was deformed, he panicked. He ran away from children in wheelchairs. Although we did our best to prepare him for the amputation of my arm by telling him the truth, answering his questions, and addressing his fears, we didn’t know how he would respond.
When I came home following the amputation, Jonathan stared at me for a long time. Then he ran outside and gathered up his friends. They called me into the garage and Jonathan said, “Dad, take off your shirt. Show ’em where they cut your arm off.” So I did. They all looked at the fresh wound and said, “Oh, gross!” then they ran outside to play. That was how Jonathan broke the ice and began accepting what had happened to me. Today he no longer fears physical handicaps. Instead, a deep compassion for those who suffer has been built into his character.
I wish I could say that Jan and I handed cancer as a couple as well as we did with our children, but we didn’t. Just as intense heat brings the impurities in gold ore to the surface, the pressure of cancer brings a couple’s flaws and impurities into the open. Jan describes that time best: “For a time, Dave was angry. Although I knew his heart and didn’t lack love for him, I didn’t like seeing that ugly side of him. And I didn’t handle my role as caretaker well. I ended up depressed, burned out, and guilt-ridden. At the time my husband really needed me, I fell apart. My weakness was frustrating to both of us.” Despite our unfailing commitment to one another, we fell apart to the point that my parents needed to come into our home and care for us for six weeks because Jan and I had become incapable of doing it ourselves.
We don’t know exactly what you face on your cancer journey because every individual and family responds to the demands of cancer in their own way. But we do know that cancer is difficult for everyone in the family and that each member’s response has a dramatic impact on the other members. Some people are able to pull together and work through the process. They don’t experience the same things Jan and I experienced. Other families are just like us and have to deal with difficult, often ugly, issues. And in some families, the crisis is so great that the marriage doesn’t survive.
We certainly don’t have all the answers. We don’t offer a formula of dos and don’ts when cancer comes home. But we are willing to share a glimpse of our cancer experience and the experiences of others in the hope that it will encourage you and help you press on and endure the journey as a family. You are not alone in dealing with these issues. Many other families, through loving acceptance of one another and open, honest communication, are learning how to deal with cancer when it comes home.