I’ll never forget that day in mid November in 2012. I was in Bible study and received a text from my sister. She discovered a lump near her collarbone and wanted to know which kind of doctor to call. My sweet precious friends stopped Bible study right then, and we prayed. I was certain it was nothing. My baby sister was only 25 years old, after all.
She had an appointment for the coming Monday with her primary care physician. The doctor immediately ordered a battery of tests, including a biopsy to be done that Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. Momma, Daddy, my sister’s fairly new boyfriend, and I sat in the waiting room laughing and joking and enjoying each other’s company, though we were all deeply scared. Thanksgiving Day was odd in 2012. Everything happened so suddenly that we hadn’t told the family what was going on, so they were a little surprised to see her come in with a big piece of gauze bandaged near her neck. We attempted our annual expressions of thankfulness, but there was a lingering fear and worry.
Because of the holiday weekend, we didn’t hear anything until the following Monday. Hodgkin Lymphoma. Stage two. Apparently if you’re going to get cancer, this is the “good” kind. It typically strikes the young, and it’s very curable. But cancer. Good kind or not, it is a very ugly word. I walked outside to find my husband in the garden, and he embraced me with a hug. Big deep breath; back indoors to tend to my children.
My children. Ages four and one at the time. What? How? I had so many questions about how to help such young ones, especially my inquisitive four year old, understand what was happening to their lovely and lovable aunt. Thankfully, with some guidance from clear thinking friends (I certainly was not thinking clearly), I was able to help my children through this tough time. And in return, they brought some light and laughter to our family and their aunt.
What do I tell them? I told them the truth. I explained to them that their aunt was very sick, and needed some strong medicine to get better. This medicine would make her hair fall out, and she probably wouldn’t feel like playing for a long time. I didn’t sugar coat it, because I didn’t want them to fear the unknown or be scared to ask questions. I also wanted to make the distinction between normal childhood illnesses and cancer. I made it crystal clear that if they were to get sick with a cold or an ear infection, the medication they would take would not make their hair fall out. They needed to understand that the side effects they saw in her were nothing to fear.
How can they help? Little ones can do so much to brighten a dark time. Children were allowed in the waiting room at chemo appointments, so the kids and I sat with my sister in the waiting room before almost every appointment. The carefree chatter of children temporarily took all of our minds off what was coming. My older daughter prayed every night for her aunt and made some sweet cards. She also helped me prepare healthy “chemo approved” meals for her aunt, who was often too tired and overwhelmed to cook for herself.
What precautions should we take? Chemo patients have suppressed immune systems and are often extremely fatigued for days after treatment. My children are typically very healthy, but I was careful to not bring them around my sister if they had any symptoms of sickness. My younger daughter had a birthday during the time my sister was receiving chemo treatments, so we celebrated with a very small “family only” party to reduce my sister’s exposure to possibly germy kids.
Children can surprise you! I’d planned to give my children constant warnings that their aunt was tired and needed some peace and quiet. But children can surprise you with their intuition and compassion sometimes. Instead of loud active play, they cuddled with her and looked at books together.
Thanksgiving 2013 was possibly one of the most monumental holidays our family had spent together. It had been almost a year from the first time we’d heard the scary “cancer” word applied to our family, and my sister had overcome! She had started to grow in some super cute blond curls that she could brush, and she was able to enjoy her food again. This Thanksgiving marks the third year since her diagnosis. Our family does not take this for granted. We have our health, and more importantly, we have each other.