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: the gift cancer leaves its survivors

Life Lessons from a CAT Scan

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  • Posted: 03/15/2013 8:00 AM
  • Updated: 03/15/2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

This week, my son had a CT Scan at Children's Hospital. He is 15 years old, a sophomore in high school who has just experienced his first trimester of Algebra II, his first girlfriend, and his first part-time job.

"I'm scared, Mom," he says. "What if they find something in me like they did in you?"

It takes me a minute to answer. I'm not just scared. I'm terrified, almost too frightened to reassure my son. Not a great trait in a mom, I know.

The reason for the CT Scan is a strange, hard, knobby lump that has formed on my son's neck between his throat and his collarbone. Two doctors and one specialist have already examined him, and none of them could explain it. The x-rays were inconclusive. This is the natural next step. Everyone is being positive and kind.

"It's probably nothing sinister," the specialist at Children's Hospital says. "We're just having a look."

"It's just his third weird thing," my mother believes. My son has two webbed toes and, as we discovered during the x-ray, cervical ribs, that rare tiny extra set of ribs some humans have. My mother is convinced that weird genetic anomalies happen in sets of three. She is certain that this third thing will be like that: just a part of my son's body that's unlike most of ours.

But what if it isn't?

Cancer is, indeed, a gift that keeps on giving: You come out of it feeling like a chipped teacup, lucky to survive the dishwasher.-- Holly Robinson

With me, what they found was breast cancer. Early stages, but I was petrified because my son was then only in kindergarten. I wasn't afraid of death; I always imagine death as one long nap, frankly, and I could always use one of those. I thought our older children would muddle through -- they were already in their teens and pulling away -- but I was scared by the thought of my son growing up motherless, or with an evil stepmother who might leave him alone in the equivalent of dark woods.

In the end, cancer proved to be a gift. I started saying no to friends who bored me or jobs I didn't want to do. I thought the autumn leaves had never been so bright, the air never so sweet. I convinced my husband to buy a summer cottage on Prince Edward Island and we took a family trip to Spain. I started to write more seriously and finally began publishing books. Cancer is, indeed, a gift that keeps on giving: You come out of it feeling like a chipped teacup, lucky to survive the dishwasher. But, as everyone around you shares their stories, as cancer survivors so often do, you also discover that everyone has something. None of us escapes illness or death. It's what you do while you're well that matters. There is no such thing as too much time on your hands.

Now, however, I'm scrabbling to find an upside to a sick kid. Googling takes me down scary cliffs into churning seas of medical possibilities filled with sharks and stinging creatures, so I'm trying like hell to stay off the computer.

But of course I can't shut off my brain. I had a sister who died of cystic fibrosis, a stepbrother killed in a car accident. These things happen. I try playing the statistics card: Really, could my son have cancer, if I already have two siblings who died tragically young? C'mon, what are the odds?

Turns out, the odds are the same for me as for anyone else. Doesn't matter if I've already lost people I love. I could lose more. There are no good odds to play.

Take things one day at a time, everyone says, and that's what I finally tell my son. "Don't worry about it right now, honey," I say. "We'll have the test, and then we'll know something more. You heard the doctor. There's probably nothing to worry about."

"But what if there is?" he says.

"Then the doctors will find a way to make you healthy again."

"But what if they can't?"

I look at him, my colt of a son, all long legs and energy. What if they can't?

"Then you'd better have the best fifteenth year of your life," I declare. "We'll do everything you want to do: trips, travel, music, movies, friends. We'll help you fit ninety more years of living into whatever time you have left."

This can't be an easy lesson for a teenager, I think, but then my son surprises me. He shrugs and says, "I should probably do that anyway, right? Because you just never know."

Then he heads outside. When I look out the window, my son is walking through the snow on his stilts, because that's something he has never tried before.

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