My son was diagnosed with ALL in June, 2013. As any parent whose child has received a cancer diagnosis can attest, life and what you thought you knew about it changes in the few seconds it takes to hear that your child has been diagnosed with cancer. What you thought you knew about yourself changes in the space of a few seconds. What you thought you knew of your strength as a mother changes in those few seconds.
I have always been a worrywart--I am that person who always assumed something bad must have happened if I was trying to reach my mother and she wasn't picking up the phone. I am that person who always assumed someone was upset with me if I hadn't talked to them in a while. I am that person who always imagined the worst outcomes, and tried to steel myself for them. I would see the news, hear stories of horrible things that happened to wonderful families, and I would imagine how I would react in that situation. Frankly, I always imagined I would fall to pieces; I did not have the fortitude to deal with a true crisis. That is always what I believed: until my son was confronted with a true crisis.
At 12:51pm on a Wednesday in early June, our beloved and trusted pediatrician entered our hospital room (where we had been hospitalized since the night before with a virus and dehydration) with a nervous smile. He leaned back against the counter opposite the bed where I sat with my son, and he took a shaky breath. I remember slowly closing the Richard North Patterson book I was reading and feeling the first twinge of trepidation. This wonderful man, who had been a pediatrician for over 30 years, was–quite clearly– upset and anxious. Looking up at him, I knew my son- who was passed out, feverish; and who, according to every resident and nurse who had seen us, probably had mono- most definitely did not have mono. Dr. James took another breath and said, "Well, we ran trending lab work since last night's labs, and things have changed dramatically overnight. He is even more anemic. His platelets have fallen off a cliff, as has his white blood cell count. We're seeing cells in his blood that are not supposed to be there. In all likelihood, he has leukemia."
Those words, those sentences; it was like a bad Lifetime movie. It was not real because it couldn't be real--that sort of horrible, unfair thing happened to wonderful families I watched on The Today Show. Ann Curry was supposed to grab their hands and shake her head sympathetically while speaking soothingly to the struggling family. Matt, Natalie, and Al were supposed to segue into the commercial break with appropriate gravity and somber tones. It was not supposed to happen to my wonderful family. We were supposed to spend the summer swimming and visiting family, while attempting to grow our family. I was supposed to be neurotic and obsessing over my son's (rather significant) speech delay, and wonder if it meant he had autism. We were supposed to be in NJ for our best friend's baby shower the following weekend. We were not supposed to be hearing that our son, our only child, our joy, had cancer.
That moment--that is the moment that I had vaguely imagined when seeing sick children on the news, when reading about sick children while scrolling through my Yahoo feed. I would idly wonder how those mothers did it. I would admire their courage and my eyes would fill with tears for their plight and their children's plight while I finished a cup of coffee and went about my morning, confident in the fact that it couldn't happen to me, and confident in the fact that it couldn't happen to me because I couldn't handle it.
Guess what? I was wrong on all counts. It could happen, and it did happen to my son, to my family. When that moment happened to my family, my body became more and more still. I sat on the hospital bed next to my desperately sick child--my sweet, innocent boy whose laughter could make strangers two aisles over in the grocery store burst out laughing themselves--and I listened. I didn't cry, I didn't pass out, I didn't vomit. I listened as Dr. James explained what leukemia was, as he described the very basics of treatment, and as he gently said that a pediatric oncologist would be coming in to discuss things with us after he looked at my son's records and examined his blood under a microscope. The only thing I said was a question: I asked if we could give our son our bone marrow. (On a side note, I must have pulled that information right out of my rear, or I vaguely remembered reading it in My Sister's Keeper years before--I knew nothing about leukemia.) I didn't cry throughout the whole conversation, and when I started to cry when Dr. James gave me a huge hug, I was able to stop on a dime when my son, who is remarkably in tune with his surroundings, even when he was so young and so ill, roused himself and became upset at me crying. Less than five minutes after being told our son had cancer, I was able to stop crying, hug my son, and reassure him that Mommy was crying because she had something in her eye, and everything was fine.
Every parent of a child with cancer has heard, probably more times than we can count, "I don't know how you do it. I couldn't do it. I admire your strength." They're wrong--they could do it if they had to. I know they're wrong because I couldn't do it, either. That is, I couldn't do it until I had to--there was no other choice. Everything you know about life and yourself changes in the few seconds it takes to tell parents their child has cancer.