You never forget the day you’re told your kid has cancer. December 6, 2001. My boy was diagnosed with a Wilm’s Tumour when he was 10-months-old. It’s a tumour that grows on the kidney and isn’t usually found until a child is three to seven-years-old, and is commonly found at stage four because there are virtually no symptoms.
He was extremely fussy from birth and we just thought the ‘colic’ would never end! The diagnosis came quite by accident—or not. He had the flu and his colour just didn’t look right. After a visit to the doctor, life catapulted us into a world we knew nothing about.
Ten days later Mitchell was in surgery to have both the tumour and his left kidney removed, called a radical nephrectomy. The surgeon did a dance (seriously) when he announced that they had successfully removed the entire mass, and proceeded to kiss me on the cheek.
I remember thinking as I drove to and from the hospital over those months, “I had no idea the lives that are impacted here on a daily basis, or how huge this place actually is.”
Mitch spent his first Christmas in the hospital. On Boxing Day, he had a second surgery to insert the port (I-VAD) they would use to deliver chemo for the next six months. When the biopsy came back to determine what stage he was at, everyone in the Pediatric Oncology Ward was overjoyed that it was Stage one. That meant his prognosis was 96 per cent sure of complete recovery. At the end of his treatment and at the ripe old age of 18 months, he was declared cured and cancer free, but will go for annual checkups until he is 21.
Even though we have what other parents faced with childhood cancer consider a happy ending, the trauma as a result of the entire experience is very real and impacted each of us differently, even now.
My then-husband disappeared for hours at a time, triggered by what seemed like an insurmountable hurdle, too painful to face. It left me carrying the bulk of the responsibility and we ultimately ended up separated for two months during Mitchell’s treatment. Although I understand now why I was abandoned to deal with the situation, in the moment I was devastated and felt completely unloved, and alone.
I went on auto-pilot, but I also exhibited anger whenever anything else difficult showed up during that time. I’d get teary-eyed (for years afterward) when I went through a cash register that had a coin collection box for the Stollery Hospital or for Kids With Cancer organizations in Edmonton, where we lived.
Imagine as a baby, being handed over to an army of adults who poked and prodded, ripped you open, put tubes in you and didn’t let you sleep while they constantly checked on you. Imagine have chemo injected into you during the most important neuron-development time frame of your life. Imagine going into chemo with 4 teeth, and a month after it was over, getting the rest of them within a month! What a way for a little guy to experience those first years of his life.
One of Mitch’s most significant long term impacts is that he thinks I’m mad at him. All. The. Time. I could be telling him I love him and yet he thinks for some reason, I’m mad. Along with some of his other long term diagnoses, can you imagine that he may be experiencing PTSD? At the age of 16, we are now discovering that may be our next venture – working through some of the trauma he doesn’t even remember (although, I sure do)!
Our oldest daughter who was three-years-old while this was all going on, had to deal with taking the backseat for quite a while. She handled it in a very mature manner for a little girl, but I feel a bit like she missed out on some her childhood. I think I have more regret over that than she does.
Because we are so many years past the actual experience, some say forget it and move on. He’s fine. But that actually triggers me, because we have much to remember and be grateful for. It’s shaped the fabric of our lives.
Trauma happens to all of us in some form – at some point – in our lives. It’s important for me to remember where we were then and where we are now. It’s also important for me to share our story, in case someone needs hope and encouragement that even in our darkest hours, we can get through it and our resilience can surprise us.