For years, I’ve heard the “C-Word” whispered and spit out, hurled into the quietest corners of my house and tucked into moments of irrational self-doubt. It’s followed me through middle school hallways and dinner table arguments — sometimes only in remission, but still dormant nonetheless. Every family has a Cancer Story; I knew this before I knew my own. Like many, I’ve internalized the sickness personally, even though it’s never been mine. Experiencing its intricacy and aggression secondhand, I’ve seen its power: terrible when unleashed and futile to fear. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being the daughter of a patient, however, it’s that cancer is less about the disease and more about what families can take from it.
My parents and I always tried to distract each other — we coped this way from the start. It was September of 2001, and the Twin Towers had just fallen. I was four, so I don’t remember much, but I do recall that Mom and Dad were incredibly shaken. Their roots were on the east coast, and even though they didn’t experience any direct losses, “everyone knew someone who knew someone,” my dad says.
About a week later, they took me to Legoland, of all places. Dad tells me we went to restore some happiness and normalcy in my life, but I’d venture to assume that my parents needed the trip more than I did. I apparently didn’t want to do much walking that day, so I made Dad carry me for most of it. The next day, his back hurt. I was heavy; he was sore. Nothing unusual.
He had a routine checkup scheduled for the next day, though, so the backaches were mentioned to his doctor. Incidentally, lower back pain is a common sign of metastasized prostate cancer. Dad had no other symptoms — he was completely healthy — but they ran his PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, anyway. A normal value is lower than four nanograms per milliliter of blood, and Dad’s were off the charts.
However, his cancer hadn’t metastasized yet — the back pains were actually just byproducts of my ruthless kicking. By the off-chance of his ailment, we caught the cancer early. Dad tells me that if he hadn’t taken us to Legoland that day, if I hadn’t been a literal pain in the back, he wouldn’t have said anything to his doctor, and diagnosis may have come too late. In trying to momentarily shield me from the world’s horrors, Dad was exposed to ones of his own. Although bitterly ironic, this saved his life.
Dad says that when he was diagnosed, he wanted to physically crawl out of his skin. He felt healthy — he was a father and working husband living a relatively normal life — but there was something threatening in his body, and its impact was entirely out of our control. When my parents were given his original prognosis of one to two years, they were paralyzed. Dad lost his father when he was only 16, and his biggest fear was leaving me in the same way.
“But you can’t always expect the worst, because all you have is today, anyway.”
Almost thirteen years later, Dad tells me this as we sit outside our favorite café, sharing a latte and overpriced omelet. We were never guaranteed the memories we have of each other now; we weren’t even supposed to be together this long. Or maybe we were. Maybe Dad was meant to defy his original odds.
The surgery that was supposed to cure Dad right after his diagnosis failed to do so entirely. He has since bounced from one drug to the next, undergoing experimental treatment when those stop working. Some were easier than others; I haven’t forgotten the sound of my parents’ late-night emergency room rushes for scary side-effects. It was always strange to watch someone with so much power in my life be rendered powerless in the workings of his own. I love my father to death, but am usually awful at showing it.
Dad’s sickness wasn’t always something I processed openly, though. Since I was so young when he was diagnosed, my parents never actually sat down and told me he was sick until after I found out on my own. I always subtly resented the fact that they didn’t tell me earlier, but when I look at the four-year-old self still immortalized in picture frames on Dad’s nightstand, I really can’t blame them. He tells me that they wanted to maintain the “fun, frilly innocence” of my childhood, that he couldn’t bring himself to put an end to it. He loved me fiercely and fought to protect me from a part of himself that even he was terrified by.
During these years, the C-Word shrouded my home in secrecy. Phone calls were often furtive and hushed. Hospital wristbands were stowed away in locked drawers. Pamphlets were quickly flipped over upon my entrance into a room.
Honestly, I don’t even remember exactly how I found out. Maybe it was the fault of a voicemail overheard; maybe I finally thought about his past surgeries and put two and two together. I do remember quietly sneaking onto our family computer to see if Google knew whether or not Dad might die. It was strange to “research” a problem so personal, but how else was I supposed to understand? I didn’t dare ask my parents — I couldn’t tell them they had failed to shield me from their fears. Even the fourth-grade me somehow felt responsible for safeguarding against the hurt they tried to prevent.
Once again, we distracted each other from parts of reality that we found impossible to directly internalize.There’re only the three of us — Mom, Dad and me — in my immediate family, and we worried simultaneously but protected one another from personal fears. Maybe this wasn’t the best way for us to be strong for each other, but we all tried our best to move forward.
We talk about it openly, now. Today Dad tells me his favorite quote about our situation is that “cancer is a word, not a sentence.” He never planned to get sick, but his experience hasn’t been entirely full of negatives. His doctor now checks and treats patients 10 years earlier than he did before Dad’s accidental diagnosis.
“You get a diagnosis, you get yourself together, you get over your fears, you get a treatment plan, you follow through with it.” The fact that Dad can now speak about his experience with hindsight is one of its most beautiful qualities.
My father is the strongest, most resilient man I know. He taught me how to laugh at myself, and how to love others unconditionally. Cancer will always be something we find personally affecting, but Dad isn’t just a “patient,” and we know now that a cancer diagnosis doesn’t have to be an ultimatum. Most people who know Dad have no idea he’s sick, and most people who know me have no idea, either. We’ve processed it in the ways that worked best for us at the time, and in doing so, learned more about each other. Nothing about the future is certain, but I will always be proud of the way Dad carried this weight.