In the midst of all of the things that tie us together, it’s been what many would consider the most challenging shared experience a mother and son can have – facing and surviving cancer – that has been a defining feature of our relationship and ultimately one of the most overwhelming blessings of life.
I remember the sensation like it was yesterday. The adrenaline was coursing through my body as I swooshed down a slope in southern Michigan, downhill skiing for the first time. I was 13 years old, in the seventh grade, on a ski trip with friends that were part of our school’s German club. As I reflect almost 20 years later about why this moment remains one of my most vivid memories from childhood, two things come to mind. The rush, the feeling of being alive, that accompanied learning how to ski was undeniable, but the more powerful emotion that I recall feeling was gratitude. In that moment, surrounded by friends and experiencing something close to pure joy, I clearly remember being filled with a new depth of appreciation and love for my mom.
My mom, Rin, and I have many things in common, from shared interests to our mutual love for back scratches and sports. In the midst of all of the things that tie us together, it’s been what many would consider the most challenging shared experience a mother and son can have — facing and surviving cancer – that has been a defining feature of our relationship and ultimately one of the most overwhelming blessings of life.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, right after my first birthday. As a 33-year-old mom of two boys under 4, I can’t imagine the fear and stress she must have felt and I am blown away when I think about the depth of strength and grace it must have taken to go through treatment. After a year of quality care and radiation treatments, she was cancer-free. To celebrate, my parents decided to take my brother, Chris, and I to Disney World. Shortly before we were scheduled to go on the trip, I had a check-up with our doctor. During the visit, blood was found in my urine and led to the ultimate discovery of rhabdomysarcoma, a very rare type of bladder cancer. Because of the uncommon nature of this specific type of cancer, my parents had to work with doctors at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago through various approaches to my treatment until, after over a year, a preferred treatment path became clear. After two-plus years of intense chemotherapy and radiation, I emerged cancer-free and both my mom and I have lived that way for the past 29 years.
Being so young, I don’t have any memories from my treatment; however, I know that my mom and dad spent endless hours shuttling back and forth to the hospital, and lived through the inevitable stress and trauma that go along with having a child face cancer treatment. Despite how challenging this had to have been for my parents, the stories they have always shared with me from this period are characterized by love and hope. My parents’ community and church rallied behind them and provided support for me and my brother. Family and friends generously gave their time, money and literally their blood to ensure that I had a chance to live. And more than anything, their faith sustained our family and delivered us another miracle.
Over the years, my mom has spent countless days with me at follow-up doctor appointments. The hours driving to Chicago or waiting in lobbies have often been when we have had some of our most meaningful conversations. We’ve had serious discussions that have ranged from the uncertainties of potential long-term effects of my treatment to major life decisions about career and starting a family. We’ve had hilarious experiences, like the time we got locked in a stairwell at Northwestern Hospital, and always find ourselves laughing. More than anything, these moments have underscored how powerful the bond of our shared experience of having cancer is, and how much it has strengthened and deepened our relationship and friendship.
As a mom, wife, leader and friend, she is always finding ways to invest in others. One of the most powerful things I’ve observed her do consistently over the years is step up when friends or family find themselves going through cancer treatment or providing care for their loved ones facing cancer. I’ve always reflected that part of what drives my mom to live this way is that she experienced the impact of others selflessly pouring into her, both during her cancer treatment and mine. Her example sets the bar and motivates me to always give more, focus on others and not be afraid to step up and support others facing cancer or other challenges.
I felt a new depth of gratitude for my mom in that moment on the ski slopes because I realized I was only able to experience the intensity of skiing for the first time because of her fierce perseverance and unconditional love. Over the years, as I’ve experienced more memorable moments, I’ve often found myself in these instances filled with the same, powerful gratitude for my mom. No one would ever wish that a mother and son would have to share the experience of having cancer. However, for me, this common part of our lives has been the ultimate gift, deepening our friendship and strengthening an already-unbreakable bond.