“Carcinoma.”

All the other words the doctor said before this paled. It was this last word that mattered.

We thought it was just a lesion. After all, our son (Aaron) was 15. Yeah, some kids develop cancer, but not ours. That happens to other people.

The next three months were a blur. Phone calls. Emails. Appointments. Exams. Scans and blood work. Surgery. And, because of where we live, all of this was two hours away. Back and forth, again and again.

Amid this was all the usual stuff. Other kids. School. Work. Relationships. Jen and I tried to keep things as “normal” as possible, while in our hearts and minds life was anything but routine.

One day, Aaron was having his teeth cleaned, and then a month later he has a hole in the roof of his mouth a little larger than a golf ball.

About three weeks after surgery we got the official “all clear.” Tumor gone. No evidence of cancer anywhere else. No radiation or chemo. Just vigilance and regular follow-ups over the next five years.

Whew.

We began to breathe again, and to relax a little. Then we crashed. The months of hyper-alert, adrenaline-laced living had taken its toll. Our minds finally began to process all that happened.

Reflecting on it all, here are some of big things we learned, courtesy of cancer.

1. We are not in control

We didn't see this coming. No one did. According to doctors, we couldn't have stopped it even if we had known. If not for an observant dental hygienist, we would still be clueless about that sneaky, slow-growing killer.

I have influence, but not control.

2. Bad stuff happens

We knew this already, but we never expected this version of it. A teenager? Our teenager? Why him? Why us? Why this? On top of everything else, it was discovered in mid-August, one week before school started. Needless to say, his semester was challenging. Why now?

3. The past is powerful

Aaron's biological father died of Pancreatic cancer. The c-word carries extra weight, and terror, in our household. Aaron's tumor triggered a cascade of emotions and fears. When a tragedy happens, it burns a deep pathway in our brains. When something similar looms in upon us, we naturally expect the same catastrophic result.

4. Good stuff can come out of bad stuff

In the midst of the whirlwind, we met wonderful people – doctors, nurses, assistants, other patients, etc. Prayer and emotional support flowed in from every sector. Little stuff got swallowed by the truly important stuff.

A new focus on love, kindness, and goodness naturally emerged.

Aaron grew. We all did.

5. Hope is essential

Yes, we were concerned. Okay, we were worried, even terrified at times. But we were hopeful.

This was a deliberate choice. We coached ourselves in this.

In all the uncertainty, we intentionally kept returning to what we knew was true – about life, about our family, and about love.

6. Treat others like we want to be treated

This process wasn’t smooth. Some things fell through the cracks. We got angry and frustrated at times.

We had to coach ourselves here too…

Remain calm. Don't react, but respond. Be kind. Be respectful. Be compassionate. We focused on treating others the way we would want to be treated, and it came back to us, over and over again.

7. One step at a time

The temptation was to think ahead and wonder. We kept coming back to this – “Breathe. One step at a time.”

The next phone call, appointment, or test. The next teacher conference, email, or meeting. The next thing on our plate, whatever that was.

One step, one moment at a time.

Reflections

As I look back over this list, I have to laugh. We knew all this before, but we seem to wander from it in daily life. Busyness dilutes our focus. Things like cancer bring us back to what's important and non-negotiable.

Because of my work as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor, I'm aware that our cancer journey, though difficult, was smooth compared to many other journeys out there – perhaps even yours. I'm encouraged by the fact that, though our journeys are different, we can walk together. And the seven things above apply to us all.

  • You are not in control.
  • Bad stuff will happen from time to time.
  • Be aware of the power of your past.
  • Look for the good stuff amid the obstacles.
  • Hold on to hope and nurture it.
  • Treat others the way you would like to be treated.
  • Handle the tough stuff one step, one thing, at a time.

The road is bumpy. The journey is challenging. Travel light.

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