By Jenni DeWitt
“We need to raise money for the sick kids. The scientists are trying to make them feel better,” I said to my young boys, trying to explain their daycare’s childhood cancer fundraiser to them.
Cancer wasn’t something I worried about with my kids. Our family didn’t get cancer, at least not since my great-great-grandma had that tumor. I sure felt bad for those poor families who had to worry about it, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it must be for them. But childhood cancer wasn’t something that impacted my life.
Then, 4 months later, my son Cooper was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Without warning, our family suddenly did get cancer. My son was the “sick kid” and we were the “poor family” who had to deal with this terrifying disease.
News That Makes You Numb
It was the end of my own innocence in thinking that kind of thing couldn’t happen to me … or, at least, it should have been. But everyone reacts differently to tragic news, and my defense mechanism was denial.
Surely, they got it wrong, I thought. I’d heard about cases where it looked like cancer at first and then it turned out to be something else entirely, like a strange virus that passed quickly. That’s probably what it was, I told myself.
So that first night in the hospital, I was the reasonable one talking to the doctors about our next steps. I was the one who kept it together so my husband could go through all the treacherous emotions you feel when someone puts your child’s name and “cancer” in the same sentence.
I was holding on desperately to my delusion that this couldn’t happen to us. In my mind, it was only a matter of time before the doctors would realize they were wrong. This wasn’t actually cancer.
The Shattering Reality Of Leukemia
One test after another came back confirming a cancer diagnosis. Each test was like an ice pick, chipping away at my delusion.
As we stood in front of an elevator, waiting to be whisked away with my son to yet another procedure one day, my husband turned to me and said, “Why aren’t you crying? You haven’t cried.”
Time stood still as I looked at him in confusion. We both knew I was the over-reacting, emotional person in the relationship. He was right … why hadn’t I cried? I didn’t know why at the time.
But a few weeks later, as my husband was starting to come to terms with that first wave of incomprehensible emotion, I ran out of lies to tell myself. In a flood of tears, I held my son, who was in so much pain he couldn’t get comfortable, and I bawled my eyes out.
He had cancer. This was our life. It could happen to us. It did happen to us.
From Denial To Acceptance
This was our life now, and nothing would ever be normal again. Even if Cooper got better, it would never be the same. I lamented all the things I’d taken for granted before, as I mourned the loss of our old life.
We were no longer ourselves. Now we were those people you saw on the flyers that hospitals send out. The ones with the bald kids and the tired, sad-looking parents. That was us now. The cancer family.
Somehow, through the tears, that first day of realization passed, and we made it through the tests, agony, fear, and anxiety of the next day and the next. Every day we kept plodding along, and I started to realize something I hadn’t before.
There’s more to those “poor families” than tired smiles and bald babies.
“Every day, we were discovering how strong we were. We were realizing how amazing our child was as he giggled and gave us radiant smiles, even in the midst of his sickness. And we were learning to see the joy in life — to embrace the moment we were in — and be grateful for it.”
—Jenni DeWitt, mom of pediatric cancer survivor
It was painful to be the “poor family” with the “sick kid,” but we were starting to discover that, in sharing that pain together, we were also sharing in the joy of blessed moments.
Letting Pain Bring You To A Point Of Grace
I started to understand that being one of “them” wasn’t that much different after all, because we’re all in this world where pain and sadness are touched by joy and love all the time.
It’s been five years since “they” switched to “us” and we became a cancer family. We still raise money for childhood cancer research, but now, when we teach our kids about it, the people we’re helping aren’t somehow outside of us and our life.
They are a part of who we are. They are our friends and neighbors. They are one of us.
Because now we know the truth. When you share in someone’s sadness, you also share in their joy.