There was one conversation I never wanted to have with my children.
The conversation had nothing to do with sex, drugs, drinking, my past or any of the other topics some parents seem to stumble through. I’ve had plenty of those and never once felt butterflies in my stomach.
There was one conversation I never wanted to have with my children, and when the teachable moment came up, I was absolutely terrified.
I had to tell my children their mother has cancer.
The initial diagnosis
Yes, I have cancer – thyroid cancer to be exact. My diagnosis came two weeks ago.
An MRI first revealed two small nodules at the base of my neck when neurologists were testing me for multiple sclerosis last year. Time went by, and I forgot about the lumps. Over the next several months, I developed neck pain, and I brushed it off as merely a sign of life after 40. Your neck and back ache; it’s just part of growing older. In a bizarre bit of irony, I found my radiology report just a few weeks ago while I was preparing for our pain-in-the-neck tax return. The last item on the report caught my eye, “Follow up on thyroid nodules with ultrasound.” How could I have missed that?
Our family physician did the ultrasound and then ordered a needle biopsy on one of the nodules. Two days later I learned the biopsy revealed papillary carcinoma, a form of thyroid cancer. My thyroid and its neighboring lymph nodes will be surgically removed in just a few days.
Family experience with cancer
My children’s up-close and personal experience with this disease has not been positive. They watched our beloved pup, Cotton, waste away from malignancy until we humanely ended her suffering. It was heartbreaking for all of us. My uncle passed away of lung cancer two years ago, and my children witnessed the sadness that engulfed the entire family. They know teachers and friends’ parents who have beaten the disease, and they feel joy for those cases; however, they fear cancer as a killer when it comes too close to home.
Surprisingly, the disease provides the back story of my teen daughter’s favorite book, “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green*. The book, which be released as a movie in June 2014, is a heart wrenching and yet affirming story about teens finding love while dying of cancer. Green dedicated his young adult novel to the memory of his friend, Esther Earl, who died in 2010 after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. She was 16.
I didn’t realize the connection when I first told my daughter about my diagnosis. Her prior personal experience, teamed with “The Fault in Our Stars,” surely did not paint a bright picture. However, I tried to reassure her that thyroid cancer has an excellent cure rate when caught in its early stages. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the book’s main character and Esther Earl had a rare and advanced form of my disease.
I have no idea what stage my cancer has reached and won’t know until after surgery and follow-up scans. My doctors tell me surgery and radiation can cure it, and I can go on to live a long and healthy life, albeit with a few adjustments. My cancer has one of the highest survival rates among its disease cousins; 95 percent of adults survive at least 10 years after treatment. I’m choosing to be an optimist.
The conversation with my daughter was brief, as was my conversation with my 10-year-old son. He curled up beside me and said, “I will help you every day.” We then talked about our recent fossil hunting adventure at the creek.
There have been other conversations since my big bombshell, and although they won’t say the c-word, my children are asking questions and opening up. They’ve asked their friends and teachers to pray for me. They’re being a bit nicer and more obedient. They hug me more.
“The Fault in Our Stars” opens in theaters in roughly six weeks, and prior to my diagnosis, my daughter and I talked excitedly about going to the premier. She asked about it again last night, and I quickly said I may need to wait a while before I saw it. She looked disappointed, but nodded her head in understanding.
I later kicked myself for my quick response and realized my error. I shouldn’t wait on anything! I have cancer, but life goes on. I need to go to the movie with her. I need to search for more fossils with my son. I need to throw myself down on the ground and scream “THIS IS NOT FAIR” to God, and then allow Him pick me up and get me moving again.
I had been so focused on teachable moments with my children that I’ve neglected the teachable moment I had in front of me – a cancer diagnosis doesn’t require you to postpone life; it requires you to embrace life immediately and live it as fully as you can for as long as you can.
-This post was written on April 15, and my surgery was done on April 17. The procedure went well, and I am very grateful for Dr. Dale Ehmer and his surgical team, as well as my post-op nurses at Centennial Medical Center.
*”The Fault in Our Stars” is better suited for mature teens due to its subject matter. The parents of Esther Earl, the real life inspiration for the book’s main character, recently released a book of their daughter’s writings through their foundation, This Star Won’t Go Out. Proceeds from the book will benefit youth cancer programs. Learn more about Esther’s life and legacy.