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.
"Well, he's coming back isn't he?"
What Cheryl and I learned during this experience was that children mirror what they see. My wife and I continually believed cancer would not destroy our lives, only alter it for a while. The word cancer had no affect on us (even if some of the problems it caused did). And so as long as we didn't walk around the house with a daddy's dying look on our faces the kids didn't have a daddy's dying fear in their hearts.
They were only too ready to accept the change. Rachel played with my crutches, Dylan played hide and seek with his dad who could only sit in one spot after major leg surgery, and Matthew (who was suddenly almost as tall as his father) used me as a mountain to scale.
I could have never known they would be that accepting of the radical change in our lives. Yet, all they needed was the chance to accept it, a happy face, and the knowledge that they were still loved.
Actually there were times when they even got ahead of us in accepting the change. Losing my hair as a result of chemo was the most powerful outward sign of my cancer. And the first time I came home bald (I shaved my head once it started falling out to avoid the long shedding process), my kids were the first to give their honest responses.
I was wearing a hat which is often what many survivors do to adorn their hairless heads. Many survivors look great in hats, sometimes as good as they looked with a full head of hair. I, however, looked like a stalker.
It was Rachel who gave me the first response.
"How do you like it?" I asked her.
"Well, you look different, but you sound the same," she told me.
I couldn't have asked for a better response. She acknowledged that, regardless of my look, regardless of my disease, I was still human. That was a better response than many adults gave me.
Then Dylan came to me in his three-year-old coyness and said, "Dad, take off your hat."
Being my first day with no hair, I was a little shy and self-conscious. "Naw, I really don't feel like taking me hat off, Dylan," I said.
He pursued with a kind of Spanky McFarlane cuteness, "Da-aaad. Would you take off your hat please?"
I didn't want to live self-consciously so I gave in and took the hat off for my son. Dylan's shoulders hunched up to his neck. His eyes crinkled and sparkled behind his long dark lashes as he put his little hand up to his mouth and let out the most delicious giggle I'd ever hear from him.
Being set up by a three-year-old laid rest to any doubt that my children might not handle the change in our lives. The key ingredient was there all along: They knew they were loved as I knew I was loved. Neither of us had anything to fear.
Life has returned to normal for us: I am back at work, Cheryl is pursuing more schooling, the kids have enjoyed another summer....and I am currently looking at brochures of military schools for Dylan.
© 2013 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies