a son helps prepare mother for chemotherapy by shaving her head
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I Have Cancer and I’m Dying and I’m Ready to Tell My Son

Feb 27, 2018

I’m 48. If the doctors are right, I will die in the next couple of years.

I have Stage 3 ovarian cancer, which even under the “best” circumstances comes with a prognosis of five to seven years. I have a preexisting liver condition that precludes the usual surgical treatment. That leaves me with chemo and radiation. Chemo … sort of worked? Maybe? The jury is still out. Radiation is next. If I’ve learned anything in the six months since my diagnosis, it’s that medicine is an imperfect, incomplete and deeply personal science, the human body remains mysterious and doctors don’t know everything.

I’m sad for all the things I won’t get to do, read, eat, watch, play with — but mostly I am sorry that I am going to break my own child’s heart.

No one wants to face a prognosis like mine, but once faced with it, you learn a few things. You learn who your real friends are. You learn how tough you are. And you learn what matters.

What matters most to me didn’t come as a surprise: it’s my eight-year-old son, Callum.

I’ve made peace with it. I’m sad for all the things I won’t get to do, read, eat, watch, play with — but mostly I am sorry that I am going to break my own child’s heart. When you would do literally anything to protect him, to know that you’re completely powerless to do so is profoundly … what’s the word for as awful as awful gets?

Last summer, before I was diagnosed, I was sick. It turned out to be blood clots, which I understand occur in about 25 per cent of cancer patients. I couldn’t catch my breath and my energy was near zero. It wasn’t something I could hide from him. Aside from making a few jokes about my inability to distance myself from the couch, Callum took it in stride as kids do.

When we found out it was a treatable cancer and I didn’t have a good prognosis because I could not be treated, I carried the information around for a bit, until it was time to start chemo. Then I told him the least I think he needed to know. I have cancer, and it’s a more serious illness than a cold or a flu. I told him what chemotherapy was in the most child-friendly way I could, and that I would lose my hair. He handled that too, and although he started getting up at least once after he was in bed, looking for nothing more than an extra hug, he didn’t ask any questions.

When my hair fell out, he was mostly concerned that I would embarrass him by showing up bald at school. I assured him I would, of course.

I handled the chemo fairly well, but concerns about my dodgy liver compelled the oncologist to put me on a chemo break in November until at least after Christmas. With the chemo out of my system, I felt good. My energy returned. I worked. We did stuff.
Except for ascites, a gnarly fluid build-up in the belly that had me looking full-term pregnant before I had it drained once a week, I’ve been virtually symptom-free. I could have hid that from him, as his father and I share custody equally, so Callum is with me only three or four days a week.

But I knew it would be an illusion, and while I didn’t want him to dwell on it, I didn’t want him to think I was cured, either. I mentioned doctors’ appointments and treatments once in a while, and one day he asked me if he could come see the hospital. I said yes, of course, whatever he needed. He said that he might just come once and never go back, and I told him that would be fine. He hasn’t asked again.

When my hair fell out, he was mostly concerned that I would embarrass him by showing up bald at school. I assured him I would, of course.

The question he hasn’t asked is the elephant in the room: Are you going to die? I don’t know if he’s even thought it yet, but I believe the time will come.

If (when?) he does, I think I know what I’ll say, and it goes something like this:

This is a powerful disease and there is no cure. I will have it for the rest of my life, and no one — not me, not the doctors — knows when I’ll die. It is unlikely that I will have an average lifespan. But I’m strong now and will undergo whatever treatments are available to make sure I’m here for you as long as I can be. When I can’t be here for you anymore, you will be loved, profoundly and completely. It’s OK if you cry and feel sad, but it’s OK to laugh and have fun, too. You’re going to need that. None of us gets to know what’s coming, and I don’t know either.

I anticipate there will be a lot of hugging and a need for reassurance that I can’t offer honestly. Maybe he’ll have nightmares. I’m sure there will be fallout I haven’t thought of, and we’ll deal with that too. Whatever questions he has, I will answer honestly and not offer false hope, but I will offer what real hope I have — that I’ll be around for a while, and that when I’m not, he will be fine. Life is amazing, and the best thing he could do for me is to live it to the fullest.

If losing your mom is horrible (and it sure is), it must be worse to lose her suddenly, without warning or preparation. I’m grateful for the time I have to ease him into it, as much as such an easing is possible. I’m grateful for the worries I don’t have. He has a wonderful father and step-father, and he really will be fine. He and my brother adore each other, and no one is better qualified to tell him who I was. He’s already got a great sense of humour that I hope he’ll manage to hang onto. He sees and experiences affection every day at home, and he knows what love is. He has as good a foundation as I could give him.

I’ve learned that denial isn’t a healthy option. Embracing reality is better, even when reality bites. It can be a tough life.

In contemporary Western society, we tend to avoid the subject of death. We pretend we’re immortal, when in fact many of our decisions are anchored in fear. I’ve learned that denial isn’t a healthy option. Embracing reality is better, even when reality bites. It can be a tough life.

As long as I can, I will continue to show him that what really gets us through it is cultivating relationships with those who enrich us (and we them) and excising those who are toxic. My partner, Brian, and I will show him that humour, affection and mutual respect — and nothing less — are what makes a relationship work. We will continue to show him that a long hug will always make things a little better. We will show him that to have value, money must be earned, and that to be really free, we must be prepared to accept the consequences of our decisions, even if we don’t like them.

We will show him that sometimes, life deals you lemons and you won’t be able to make lemonade, but you can nonetheless admire the colour and tartness of the lemon just as it is, as long as it lasts.

If I won’t be around to show him how to live well, the least I can do is show him how to die well.

Article Author Annette McLeod
Annette McLeod

Read more from Annette here.

Toronto-based freelance writer Annette McLeod is partner to roofing contractor Brian, and mom to eight-year-old Callum, two cats and Harley, the beloved mongrel. They try to keep it all together by laughing a lot and not sweating the small stuff. She is an award-winning feature writer, contest-winning short story author and produced playwright. When not stringing words together, she obsesses over Pinterest and fights the urge to buy more knitting books. You’ll find her online at nettiewrites.ca.

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