By Diana Sloan
When we are fortunate enough to have our parents with us to a ripe old age, we often end up becoming their caretakers. We return the love and care they gave us when we were unable to care for ourselves. We expect and accept that this is the way of things. It may be hard on both parties to admit the roles have changed due to illness or frailty, but we do it. We take care of our family. But what happens when you are young and may not have the gift of a long life, and your children are just that? Children.
I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer at the age thirty-eight; and my daughters were three, five, and thirteen at the time. Since my oldest is autistic and my babies were just too young to fully grasp what cancer is, my husband and I were honest with them but made sure to explain things in general easy to understand terms.
“Mommy has cancer.”
“Cancer is something that doesn’t belong in our bodies.”
“She will be in the hospital for a few days to get some of the cancer out.”
“She will be taking medicine that will make her sick, so she won’t always have the energy to do things.”
“Some days we will just have to snuggle in bed and let mommy rest.”
We handled it in the way we thought was best, and tried to protect them to a certain extent without hiding the truth. That was almost five years ago.
In those five years, my girls’ awareness and understanding of cancer has obviously changed. They have matured beyond their years, know they have to have colonoscopies in their twenties, and have too much worry and knowledge about this disease. I am stable but incurable, and they know it. These changes are understandable and expected; and, let’s face it, five years is a long time in a child’s life. But somewhere along the line something happened that I did not foresee. My children also became my caretakers. When this realization hit me, I was not happy. I wanted to scream, “Wait a minute! That is not right! This is not how things are supposed to go! I am supposed to take care of them! They are too young for this! When did that even happen?”
I blinked and my kids became the people they should ideally become at least twenty to thirty years from now. When I really think about it, I think I can pinpoint when this shift began. My recurrence. Before then we talked about when cancer would be done with me. Now we don’t. The narrative has changed in our lives. We live day to day, scan to scan, and cancer is never completely removed from our story. So my babies stepped into their role as caretakers because that is what children do for their parents.
I realize I have pretty amazing kids, but I completely underestimated the transformation young children undergo when a parent is diagnosed with cancer. Picture your beautiful senior in high school, who has trouble navigating social situations, coming to your bedroom on a chemotherapy day and asking how you are feeling and taking care of her younger sisters when you can’t. Then, envision your ten year-old offering to cook dinner so you can rest because the mere thought of food makes you feel sick. Finally, imagine your eight year-old coming to your room, putting her hand on your forehead to see if you have a fever, getting you a drink, and caressing your face while she says, “I love you mama.” All of these things happen now on chemo weeks in the Sloan household when my husband is at work. I wish with all my heart they didn’t, but they do.
I am not old. I will most likely never grow old, but my life has been filled with moments of awe and wonder. One of the most humbling of those moments was when I realized, just like all the adults in my life that love me, my children became my caretakers. And, between you and me, they are absolutely brilliant at it.
Diana Sloan, a 2018 On The Rise featured survivor, is a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor and mother of 3 girls. She’s currently making memories in Texas with her husband and daughters while receiving treatment at MD Anderson.