My 4-Year-Old Taught Me to Live with My Heart as Well as My Head During Cancer


Even after my son survived cancer, I still had fears — and nightmares — of the worst.

On the first day in the hospital for acute leukemia, my 4-year-old son, Brennan, drew a picture of a house with red, jagged spears jutting out from the roof and a large blue figure reaching in toward a tiny yellow shape inside the peak.

“It’s a birdhouse,” he told me. “There is a little yellow bird inside. There is a warning to stay away.”

Two days later he added a window and brightly colored toys outside. “The window is the only way in,” he whispered in my ear. “There are toys and lights to look pretty for Mom.”

While my son drew pictures to process how he felt about enduring all the “pokes” and “tornado” dizziness from chemotherapy, I buried my emotions and flew into action, advocating for him through three years of chemotherapy, spinal taps, and bone marrow biopsies. His prognosis was good — 85% of kids survived B-cell ALL in the 1990s. We just had to get through.

I was an oncology nurse. I knew about treatment options and clinical trials and the expected side-effects of chemotherapy, but I had no idea how to be a cancer mom. So, I did what I knew. I focused on the day-to-day appointments and treatments and the responsibility of keeping family and friends informed. It seemed so much easier to be the nurse than the mother. I had something to do.

LISTEN: Uncharted Territory: How a Cancer Nurse Navigated Her Child’s Leukemia Diagnosis

Five months into treatment, a behavioral pediatrician that I had taken Brennan to for help in managing his steroid-induced emotional outbursts, asked me “And how is Mom?” I looked at him blankly. It was the first time anyone had asked me how I was doing. I had to think about it.

I rarely cried through that first intense year of treatment. Did that mean I was coping well? I think now that I was too exhausted, or too overwhelmed, to even process how I was doing. We were in survival mode.

My son survived and we set about reclaiming childhood, playing and having fun.

But my fears came back to haunt me when he was 10 years off treatment. Brennan died in my dream. Friends of his without faces came to my house and handed me a horse, a dog, a basketball, a football. All stuffed. All white. All memories. I didn’t want them. I didn’t accept them. But in my dream, I took them. My hands, like robots, dropped each one onto a pile as I turned back to take the next gift. It was as if the rhythm of moving back and forth kept me alive.

The next day on my walk, I saw his body in a coffin in a cloud on top of the hill. “He’s a survivor!” I screamed into the void. It was as if the memories had weaseled their way into my cells. My son was a childhood cancer survivor, one of 500,000 in the United States. And yet I remained hypervigilant. Why couldn’t I lay these fears to rest?

While he was on treatment, I was so busy doing, I didn’t take time to feel. I discovered that emotions may hide, but they don’t disappear. They simmer in our subconscious and affect our own health and wellbeing. I knew when I had the dream that it was time to face my fears of losing my son — to feel the feelings, make sense of them, and then let them go — or they would haunt me forever. But how?

Some people talk. My son drew. I started writing. I wrote in journals, on my computer, on notes scattered here and there. And then I wrote a memoir to make sense of all the scattered thoughts and feelings. It was hard to relive the loss and my guilt and fears, but I knew that I had to if I wanted to release their hold on my psyche.

In one of his drawings, a few months into treatment, Brennan handed me a picture of the headless horseman. “I gave him a candle for a head,” he said, “to help him find his way.”

And now it was time for me to find my way through the dark.

My son was 29 years old when our story was published. On the 25th anniversary of his diagnosis, he shared his takeaway with an audience at a book signing. “No matter how prepared you think you are, you can never be prepared emotionally. Knowledge alone won’t get you through.”

There is no training to be a cancer mom. I learned from my son how to be present with my heart as well as my head.

This post was written and submitted by Janice Post-White. The article reflects the views of Janice Post-White and not of CURE®. This is also not supposed to be intended as medical advice.

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