Whether natural or human-created, disasters create rubble. In the aftermath of such tragedies, news feeds fill with images of catastrophic destruction. Once tall, majestic structures reduced to rubble; streets and neighborhoods filled with endless piles of debris; lives left in ruins and a cry for help issued locally, nationally, and globally.
In the days that follow a disaster, amid myriad heartbreaking tragedies, come stories of survivors. In the minutes, hours, and days following, individuals who started a day in the most typical ways, become survivors, wading through the rubble and destruction they never in a million years, dreamed would be their new normal.
So, too, is the story of families impacted by childhood cancer. Every two minutes a child is diagnosed with cancer. An ordinary family living the status quo until, in the blink of an eye, the two-minute alarm that sounds is for your family. A ‘normal’ day in no longer normal when a family suddenly finds themselves in the midst of the rubble and destruction that comes with a cancer diagnosis. What we don’t often talk about, however, is the long-term destruction that remains for survivors, for those lost too soon, and for their families.
Though we may appear to be living a ‘new normal,’ my little family continues tenderly walking on the rubble of both John and Jack’s cancer battles and deaths every day. Some days those steps are more stable, but other days an unstableness catches us unaware and unprepared.
This past September, only four days into Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, the unsteady ground of grief and trauma resulted in an unexpected break. It started much like any other day, and then, like the low-pitched rumbles of an earthquake, my morning was devastated by the tormented cries of my anxious, 1st grade son.
As I ran to his room to comfort him, I found myself in the midst of another side effect of childhood cancer . . . disguised as UNO cards. Yes, UNO cards. The cards were unrecognizable on the floor as I raced to secure my child, my eyes focused only on him, but I slipped on those cards, like seemingly small pebbles in my path. That slip caused a break . . . of my ankle and created additional rubble that has changed the trajectory of the past several weeks of my life.
A broken ankle is nothing compared to a cancer diagnosis, make no mistake; but the reality is, people want to gloss over a ‘clumsy’ fall or provide meaningless platitudes about God throwing a pebble to slow me down instead of acknowledging the reality of the rubble left in cancer’s path, rubble that sometimes visibly covers our floors and always covers our hearts. Those UNO cards provided my young son solace. A simple game at bedtime the night before gave him the comfort he needed to deal with his struggle with deep anxiety . . . a side effect of the cancer that took a brother he never met and a father he dearly misses.
Childhood cancer forever leaves its mark. While we were not in the midst of treatment plans and hospital stays, we still find ourselves impacted by the never-ending side effects. My broken ankle and the circumstances surrounding its unwelcome advent into our lives are a side effect. We all know accidents happen; life happens. But life is lived much differently in my house and the ‘new normal’ is neither something new we wanted nor a normal we will ever happily adjust to.
These are the things that cancer treatments don’t address, the stories that are seldom told. Families who are impacted by childhood cancer face innumerable life-altering side effects. From the physical issues that 80 percent of childhood cancer survivors endure, to the emotional devastation of families coping with heartbreaking losses, cancer leaves a mostly invisible rubble and a mostly invisible struggle to rebuild, refortify, and resume life.
Natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes or human-created disasters like terrorism take years, often decades, to clean up. And yet we respond and help to restore. While the landscape may change, newer and stronger structures are built.
The same cannot be said for families who are wading through the rubble that childhood cancer creates. What has been damaged can never really be rebuilt. Families can only come to terms with how to maneuver through the debris left behind. My ankle is healing, but the heart of my sweet little boy is far from healed, his anxiety far from resolved, and the rubble in his life far from being fully understood and avoided.
We must do better than this. We can’t ignore, gloss over, or offer clichés for the side effects of cancer to the patients and their families . . . both the physical and the emotional. We must fund the research that will bring newer, novel therapies and a future of HOPE and sure footing to families impacted by the rubble created by childhood cancer.