Cancer Takes Its Toll

My experience as the child of a cancer survivor

It was a hot August day, I remember that much. My dad was scheduled for a colonoscopy because he had been feeling what he thought was vertigo. He would be on his way home from work feeling weak and light headed. It was suggested by his primary doctor that he get a colonoscopy, so that’s why we were at the hospital. I was 18. I had plans to go to a concert at Downtown Disney with my friends that day. I blew off an interview at Target for this, to give you a hint of how stupid I was and where my priorities were.

I got up at 6 a.m. for this 8 a.m. appointment because that’s who my dad is. He likes being early so he will get let in earlier, and looking back on it, I can only imagine how anxious he was; no doubt he wanted to know what was wrong as soon as possible.

I brought my makeup with me to do in the waiting room since I had planned to leave once we got home from the hospital. I remember the silent car ride with my sister in the back. I think we were mostly tired, but I think my dad was nervous.

We walked in and I was met with bright lights, squinting my eyes the whole time because I hardly slept the night before. As expected, they let my dad in early for his appointment and we sat together in the waiting room. This was the first time I felt the urge to cry that day. My dad stood up as they called his name and gave my sister and me a smile and walked through the doors. I was scared to think what would happen after that moment, but I decided to start my makeup and try not to think about it.

My sister would try talking to me about what I thought was wrong with him, but I brushed it off with anger, the way I always do. I wasn’t in the mood to be making assumptions or somehow bring anything to fruition. I didn;t want to give my words the chance to manifest anything. I was focused on my makeup and didn’t want to think about my dad being anything other than okay.

For about two or three hours we sat there trying to kill time, not thinking about what the results were going to be. We received texts from our family asking for updates, but we weren’t able to tell them much.

Eventually the procedure had finished and they called me inside the room because they wanted to share what they had found. I looked at my sister reassuringly and walked through the same doors my dad had and saw him lying on the bed with the same smile he had left us with. He was telling me about how he didn’t think the drugs would work on him, but they did. He went on about how he was making the nurses laugh. I smiled softly, trying not to let him see that I was scared as hell. I know he was making an effort to hide the fact that he was scared too.

The doctor who had performed the procedure came and sat down, ready to go over the results. He let out a small sigh and said they had found a few polyps in my dad’s colon, and they were going to need to perform surgery to remove them. I sat there unsure of what exactly that meant, thinking that would be the extent of what my dad needed. Then he mentioned that ugly word no one wants to hear in a hospital room. Cancer; my dad had stage 3 colon cancer.

What I hadn’t picked up on is that the polyps in my dad’s colon were cancerous and that the surgery was to remove about 12 inches of his colon. The doctor continued, saying that not only would he need this surgery, but he would need six months of chemotherapy, four sessions per month.

I looked at my dad as he nodded and took in the information, but I sat there missing most of his words. I heard the doctor mention something about the surgery lasting about 5 years. It felt like a timestamp had been placed on how much time I had left with my dad. It was a moment where I was confronted with my parent’s mortality. I knew he wasn’t invincible and that he wasn’t meant to live forever, but I never thought that this would be the way I’d lose him, or that it would happen so soon. He had also laid out that my dad would need to get another colonoscopy every two years or so to make sure nothing grew back.

I didn’t know what this would mean for my dad, for his family, for me and my siblings. I had so much going through my head but at the same time it felt like my brain had stopped working. I was having such a hard time coping.

I don’t know how to describe what I felt. Almost so horrible that it felt like nothing. My sister was outside in the waiting room while I sat there being the first person other than my dad to hear this information. I didn’t know how I was supposed to go out there alone and share this with her.

I left the room my dad was in and opened the doors to the waiting room to see my sister sitting in her chair. She had looked tired every moment up until then. She looked at me and asked, “What did they say?”.

I try my best to be strong for my sister. We’re close in age and grew up very close. I am older than her, so naturally I have a tendency to bully her, but I promise it’s out of love. I don’t have much to complain about my life; while I wish it had been better, I know it could have been much worse. With all I’ve been through, at least I had her with me and we were able to go through it together. She is all I have. No doubt she was able to read my expression and could tell I had nothing positive to share with her.

All I was able to get out were a few words to prevent myself from crying. I hate the feeling of holding back a cry. My head feels so much pressure and my eyes hurt from trying to prevent tears from falling. I was doing everything not to cry in this ugly waiting room in front of a few people, especially not in front of my sister.

“He has cancer,” was all I was able to say. I sat down next to her and would glance at her from the side. I could see the pool of tears forming and it was obvious she was doing her best not to cry either. She tried to ask me a few more questions about it, but I couldn’t help but be dry. I was doing my best not to cry and she was making it harder.

My dad came out of the room and I drove him home. I don’t remember much after the drive home. I don’t remember too much about anything after the moment I heard he had cancer.

After the appointment, I lied about my interview and said it was still going to happen. I told my dad I was going and I would be back home later. I was doing my best to try and enjoy the rest of my day before going back to the reality of how awful the next six months would be.

My friend and I had a pretty good time. The concert was good, but I do kind of regret going. I’ll do anything as long as I am with my friends, but I never realized that I left my family in a time of need. I was selfish in going out and was only doing so to help myself. I try not to be too hard on myself because I can’t change it, but I should have stayed. Like I said, I just wanted to delay reality for awhile longer.

We stopped at IHOP after the show. I did my best to forget what an awful morning I had, but sometimes there are moments where your feelings just creep up on you. I felt one tear fall down my face and the rest just followed. My friend looked at me concerned and asked what was wrong.

I was pissed I let myself slip, but as I said, sometimes you can’t help it. I told her about what had happened in the morning and the shitty news I had received. She stared at me and her usual happy expression dropped. She said she would have hugged me, but she knew I didn’t like hugs. To some, that might seem cold considering the circumstances, but she was right. I hate affection and honestly was not in the mood for it in the middle of an IHOP. I did my best to recompose myself and told her I was fine. I wanted so desperately to change the subject and no longer think about it. My friend caught on and that’s what we did.

My dad was scheduled for surgery in September and I had just started school. His surgery was during the week so I wasn’t going to be able to be there with him. He insisted I stayed so that’s what I did. My older brother came down from Arizona, where he had been living at the time. I don’t get along with my brother that well and the anger and upset I feel with him is completely one sided. I tried to at least appreciate that he was coming here for my dad, but it still felt like he was coming to freeload while my dad was down. He had been having his own life issues with his relationship and daughter.

I remember my other friend, staying the night at my house because everyone was with my dad for the surgery. I didn’t let her know it, but I really didn’t feel like being alone. I went to school as normal and didn’t feel much. It’s a feeling I experienced throughout this whole thing. Where I was so overwhelmed that I had felt nothing. It was my body’s way of coping.

I’m ashamed to say most of what I know about what had happened during the surgery is from what was shared by my siblings. Practically our entire extended family was there waiting for my dad and offering their support. The surgery had gone well, but he wouldn’t be fully recovered for a few days.

My siblings told me this while I worked on my homework, as they sat at the table eating food my grandma had prepared for them, their first decent meal in awhile.They were sleeping in chairs by my dad’s side while I remained at home. Despite the lack of sleep and their starvation, they were in their best mood and able to laugh about everything. They said it was scary to see my dad look so weak, but assured that the support he was getting would help him get through it.

This was the beginning of me labeling myself as unnecessary in the months that were to come. I felt that my dad didn’t really need me, and in honesty, I am not much of a caretaker. I don’t have the natural kindness and gentleness that everyone else in my family has. I’ve always been a bit of a bitch and can be mean. As I heard my siblings continue on, I felt guilty I couldn’t be what my dad needed. I continued my schoolwork and began what would be six months of me drowning everything out by focusing on school.

I didn’t go to my dad’s chemo sessions after the first one. It was hard for me to sit there and do my schoolwork while my dad sat in agony. The next week, my dad asked if I was going, but I said no because I had a paper to work on. Then he asked the following week and I said no because I had more work. It continued like this probably twice more until one day my dad just didn’t ask.

I feel so selfish for not going. I couldn’t handle it. There was no way I was going to be able to sit there and focus on writing a six page essay while my dad sat beside me attached to an IV draining the life out of him. I wasn’t strong enough to be by his side, so I removed myself from the situation despite how much it would have meant to him to have me there. I would try to continue my days and not think about it. But my poor younger sister, she didn’t have a choice; her only choice was to be confronted by it.

I had the privilege of excusing myself from the chemo session every week by saying I had schoo, and my brother went back to Arizona to be with his kid. My sister was going to school online so she became my dad’s caretaker. She prepared his meals, which is a difficult task, considering he’s diabetic. She would go to the chemo sessions and make nice with the nurses and remember everything that my dad might forget. This harsh task of caring for someone in such a frail state fell on my 16 year old sister, who I had vowed to always be strong for. I am so ashamed to say that I left her alone through all of it because I couldn’t bring myself to be strong enough.

I drowned myself in my work and ignored the fact that my dad was looking weaker after every session. I ignored the fact that he was looking paler, thinner. The hair on his already shaved head wasn’t growing back the same, and his once thick eyebrows that sat on top of his eyes were lighter.

There were moments where he would sit on the couch with his pouch that had the rest of his treatment and be “resting his eyes”, as he called it. The pouch that was the only thing that could save him had been simultaneously killing him throughout those six months. It was so hard for me to see him this way, so I chose to ignore it.

All I feel from that whole experience is guilt because when I have recently looked back and thought about it, it wasn’t really much of my experience. I didn’t process any of it, and I feel so indescribably guilty that I had unknowingly made my sister go through that alone, that I had made my dad go through that alone. I pride myself so much in being emotionally strong, but it’s so hard for me to admit that during this time I was undoubtedly the weakest one in my family.

At the time, I thought I had been doing what I knew best. My parents’ solution to any problem was school and had constantly said that it would be the way to where we want to be in life. I desperately wanted to be anywhere else but where I was in those six months, so that’s what I focused on.

I went with my dad to his last chemo sessions. I thought that being there for the last moment of those terrible months would feel as liberating for me as it would for my dad, but I was wrong. I felt embarrassed by the fact that I was unfamiliar with the procedure, and would do the wrong things. I didn’t know the nurses, and they didn’t know me. I didn’t know that my dad liked extra pillows for his chair, or that he no longer liked his water iced cold. It all felt like a big smack in the face for the fact I had been so separated from him because of this experience.

I’ve never really seen the media portray how it is when someone beats cancer. I know there are balloons and banners, lots of hugging, even from the nurses. While my dad’s experience wasn’t really like that, I’m sure he shared the indescribable feeling of an unbearable weight being lifted from your shoulders. He was finally free of that terrible disease.

When we went home that day, my dad spent the night talking our ears off about how grateful he is for his health and how lucky he is. His gratefulness turned into a lecture about how my sister and I need to start taking better care of ourselves and what not. I really wanted to tune out at that moment, but I decided to let him have this one. I put my feelings aside for the night and just smiled and agreed. I was just so happy that he was okay.