Cancer and Family Survivors

We lost a good man to cancer not that long ago but you most certainly didn’t hear about it. He was a teacher, husband, father, mentor, coach and survivor right up to the end.

We lost a good man to cancer not that long ago, but you most certainly didn’t hear about it. He was a teacher, husband, father, mentor, coach and survivor right up to the end. But you didn’t read about him in the newspaper, find his picture on Google or hear about a trust fund set up for his children. He was unknown to you, and the only reason I know about him is that I sat in a session with his daughter who came for grief counseling.*

Even before being diagnosed with cancer, I was always struck by the outpouring of love and support that celebrities and their families receive when they announce their cancer diagnoses. What must it be like to have a whole nation praying for your recovery? How heartwarming to receive endless letters and emails from complete strangers who are championing your struggle and promising to look after your loved ones. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I begrudge famous people who are stricken with this disease for the the attention they receive. I just think that all of us “commoners” outside the public spotlight are no less deserving of healing prayers and energies.

I didn’t tell my client that day that I’m a cancer survivor. First, she did not need to have her time with a helping professional stained by another cancer experience. Secondly, in no way was I ready to answer the question, either directly or indirectly, “Why did you survive and my dad didn’t?” With my history tucked neatly away in my therapeutic tool bag, I listened with the dawning realization that I was in the presence of another survivor. We talked about how she has come to grips with her dad’s death despite him being her “everything.” We discussed how his cancer robbed her and her brother from his presence at all the major life events still to come.

As she talked through tear-filled eyes, I could feel my heart trying its best to expand beyond the borders of my radiated chest to wrap her in the comfort of, “It will be OK.” When she pointed out that his birthday was only a few weeks away, it was all I could do to keep from dissolving into a puddle of tears of my own. It wasn’t necessarily my years of clinical practice that kept me steady, it was her unwavering bravery as she continued to describe what happens when a father is lost to cancer.

As is the case with many of my grief-related sessions, by the end of our time together there was laughter mixed in with the tears. We talked about her desire to continue activities that remind her of her dad. How she often “breaks bad,” and then immediately apologizes. We joked about how the boys her age are all so immature and how easily she outsmarts them.

I’m never sure, when working with someone with grief issues, if they’re going to return. The pain of revisiting losses can be too much for some. In this case, I knew for certain we would see each other again. I could tell by the smile on her face as we wrapped up, and I gave her multiple verbal pats on the back for being a survivor herself, keeping her dad alive in her heart. I could feel the connection that only other survivors know, even if they can’t express it. And, while I knew that her dad’s passing never made front page news, for that moment I gave her center stage and bore witness to the greatness of a common man gone too soon.

* Client information was altered to protect confidentiality.