"Kids, Daddy Has Cancer"

"Kids, Daddy Has Cancer"
The Conversations No One Dreams of Having
July 12, 2013

 

For most survivors, cancer is a long, painful battle—not just for those who have cancer, but for loved ones too. Cancer survivor and comedian Scott Burton describes the challenges (and surprising moments too) of dealing with cancer while he and his wife were raising three children.

One of the worst things in the world to hear for anybody are the words, while sitting in a doctor's office, "I'm sorry. You have cancer." I was one of those people. After three misdiagnoses in 1992, I was finally told that the fast-growing tumor in my right thighbone was a high-grade osteo sarcoma.

I was, and am, truly blessed in that I had a large family close by who loved me and a dear wife who was ready to accept the challenge. At the time, I was also not afraid of cancer.

I consider mine, if not a charmed, a wonderful life. I was 30 when I was diagnosed and was aware that cancer struck millions. Regardless of a happy life, I had no reason to believe I shouldn't be one of those millions. Maybe, I thought, because I loved my life, I should be one of them—I should know true struggle and share the pain.

But I also had an advantage in that I had been a stand-up comic and juggler for the previous ten years. In that time, I'd trained myself to look at things from a different point of view. It was easy, when I was told of the malignancy in my right leg, for me to say, "Yeah, but how's the other leg?"

Cancer was a long, painful battle, even for someone used to laughing. But finding out that I had cancer was not painful in itself. The hardest and strangest part of my diagnosis was not what I heard, but what I had to say. No matter how prepared I was for my own fight, there was no possible positive way to say to our three children, "Daddy has cancer."

Maybe my wife, Cheryl, and I were spared the worst of it. Only one of our three children, Rachel, who was five at the time, had any idea of what having cancer meant. The other two, Dylan and Matthew, were only three and one, respectively. But though they didn't even understand that daddy had a sickness, all three could tell their father was going away for a week at a time, looked thinner, and bald, and didn't play like he used to.

It wasn't just having to tell them I had cancer that really hurt me; it was the irony that, as their father, I was supposed to protect them. They are the ones who look to me for comfort and security and I had nothing to offer them. My words had to change from, "I will clothe you and feed you" to "Could you please get me my crutches? And would you bring me some food?" Before cancer I never could have imagined how I could say those things to my children.

What I forgot about was the astounding and ebullient resilience of children. Whether I clothed them or fed them was not the issue. They just wanted to know I loved them. I was sick and handicapped, but as far as they were concerned, I was no less of a father. Somehow I had assumed our kids would use the same standard of accomplishment we adults use, as if Rachel would storm into my hospital room: "Well, if you're sick, who's going to pay the electric bill? What school am I going to go to and how's my college fund coming along?"

Children live by a whole different set of rules. As long as we all sat around the same dinner table and played on the same living room floor and held each other close as we said prayers at night, all was right with the world and mom and dad were still mom and dad.

Even when the natural order of our family was disrupted and I was in the hospital for a week at a time or needed to get away and rest, the children were always able to look at the brightest side and put the most positive spin on it.

 

Find a Workshop

Explore More In Health & Healing

Related Workshops