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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.

   

What a gorgeous, blue sky day. As he cinched the rope around my waist, I instinctively knew this was no blue sky, innocent outing.

I begged Mom not to make me go outside to play with him, but I was met with no choice. How could she have guessed my discomfort? At the age of four, my inability to communicate the fear of being alone with him left me vulnerable. I felt helpless. It wasn’t the first time he’d tied a rope around my waist.

As he led me down the back alley, I wondered what was next. Last time it was just a walk. Would it be the same this time? Of course, my Mom had no idea he had a rope at the ready, nor that his intentions were less than pure.

As a curious 12-year-old, he found a ditch for me to lay down in, and promptly pulled down my underwear and began to explore. Part of me wished it was a more private spot as other neighbours drove by, trying to figure out what we were up to. He told me to get my panties up fast, and promptly walked me home to avoid questions. Yes, the rope was still around my waist until we’d reached my yard. He never asked me to ‘play’ again, thank God. I wonder sometimes who else was subjected to his curiosity.

Fast forward to when I was twelve. I had a friend down the street who invited me to join her on the wild side, meeting the gang at the park, smoking and drinking. I never could get the hang of smoking and refused to drink – the smell was disgusting to me and I had absolutely no desire to try, but oh how I wanted to fit in.

One night after dark, the guys started talking about us girls and our various stages of development. As the most under-developed of the bunch, they began to mock me, teasing that they should “feel me up” to see if there was anything there.

Initially I didn’t take them seriously but then they started heading my direction. I told them not to even think about it and I was scared. I started running but it didn’t take much for them to catch me and throw me down on the gravel.

As three or four of them held me down, the guy I’d had a crush on for months stuck his hand up my shirt. His buddy was next. They laughed and laughed as they announced to the rest that there was nothing to feel.

I got up off the ground and took off running again, but this time they didn’t chase me. As I got closer to home I tripped on the curb and fell, resulting in a cracked elbow.

At least it was a good cover for my tears.

Years later, as an adult, I shared those experiences with my precious Mom. She was sad and mortified, apologizing that she hadn’t picked up on the fact that the neighbour kid was unsafe, or that there was more going on with my rebel friends than what she already knew. I didn’t blame her. How could she have known?

That was a time when stranger danger wasn’t a thing (but neither perpetrator was an unknown anyway), and such topics weren’t discussed. She wishes she knew then what is common practice now.

I don’t know that I’ve talked about it much, but I felt I’d resolved some of the underlying issues as a young adult and didn’t need to discuss it.

Given the community I am now involved with here, however, leads me to believe there is power in sharing my story. If even one person feels they aren’t alone in their silence and finds their voice, it will have been worth it.

Even though I inherently knew I hadn’t done anything wrong, shame lived inside me for several years. The ‘not good enough’ self-talk was prevalent too. No wonder hey?

We’re scared to talk, we feel ashamed, we want to protect ourselves and maybe even others, thinking it’s better if they don’t know.

As children, we may not know how to put a voice to it. As parents there is often talk about age-appropriate discussions regarding safe touch, but when age-appropriate isn’t considered from a perpetrator’s point of view, when exactly do we talk to our kids? Knowing what I’ve experienced and what stats indicate, I’m beginning to wonder what age-appropriateness and stranger danger conversations should sound like.

What I do know is, staying silent is never the answer. Encourage your ‘others’ to talk, provide a safe and trusting environment, even if it’s uncomfortable for you. Their safety and security may depend on it.