5 Life-Affirming Lessons I Learned When My Son Had Cancer

Written by Jen Eden

Eighty-first Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York City may be forgettable location for most but, for me, it’s quite the opposite. It's the spot where I learned, almost three years ago, that my young son had cancer. The pediatrician's voice on my cell was both sympathetic and urgent, stopping me dizzyingly in my tracks. My child's blood work told the beginning of a very new, very frightening story: His fever – one that had surfaced and abated for two weeks – was, in fact, something quite more insidious than a common virus or infection. It was leukemia.

The tale of my experiences as a mom to four young children had been, up until that point, pretty typical. I monitored for milestones being met and lessons being learned and had wrung my hands over things like strep throat and playground accidents. I had never, even in all my years of watchful days and sleepless nights, considered the idea that my child could be diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness.

One might guess where the story goes from there: An assault of doctors, tests, and medications, combined with an assault of intense emotions. There was the unreachably deep sadness that was as unfamiliar to me as the most foreign language; there was utter incomprehension, freshly felt for months as if my heart were constantly being pierced anew, at the fact that my 8-year-old had cancer; and, of course, there was the gut-wrenching worry.

Suffice it to say that once a mother knows well the names of chemotherapy medicines, and once she has seen them slowly drip their way into her child's body, she is marked for change.

Yet change also rushed into my life in many unexpected, empowering and, dare I say, beneficial ways. Tucked between the dark pages of grief were nuggets of gold that helped me through painful times and which I will carry with me well into the future.

1. Friends can truly be family.

There's no truth to the adage that blood is thicker than water. A “thick” relationship is one that is ripe with love, attention and kindness – it can be the connection with a sibling or with a best college friend. After my community showed up with regular rides to the hospital, eight months worth of home-cooked dinners and constant attention to my family’s needs, it became clear to me that the care we show others is what forges the strongest links. I have amazing family and friends. When I close my eyes, I can’t tell the difference.

2. Accepting a lack of control is liberating.

In years past I spent lots of time trying to create an environment for my family that was as impermeable to every whim and will of life as possible. Not only was that absurd, it was enervating. The obvious truth is that no matter what we do, many of life’s challenges will rear their heads, and this understanding lifted a great weight from me. Worrying about things over which we have zero power will only suck from us the fortitude we require to cope and the optimism we need to build strong, happy homes.

3. Letting go of fears can change one’s life.

Seeing my son undergo intense chemotherapy made me realize that I was capable of overcoming fears far less extreme than the ones that accompany childhood cancer. Shedding deep-seated doubts can empower us to elbow out life’s tough times with really great ones. So leave fear in the dust and travel to a new country, learn to surf, sing in front of a crowd, connect powerfully with others. We are the sum of all of our experiences, so make them bold and rewarding.

4. Children are resilient.

There are few experiences in life akin to sitting in a pediatric cancer ward amidst children without hair, without limbs, seemingly without hope. But, as my own son has taught me, children can rebound remarkably. Even children schooled in sadness well before their time are optimistic and excited about life. They have an amazing ability to handle the cards they're dealt and to move on to bigger and better. For whatever they’ve gone through, life still feels limitless ... as it should.

5. I am resilient.

It took a staredown with pediatric cancer for me to recognize my own ability to overcome. I've made it my mission to get my son, my family and myself through the prescribed three plus years of chemotherapy with courage, grace and stability. This ordeal has not dampened my spirit – on the contrary, I've held up a mirror and seen tenacity and confidence. For whatever I’ve gone through, life still feels limitless ... as it should.

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