Cancer With a Toddler in the House: Why Some Rules Just Don't Apply

Parenting is hard. Parenting a toddler is especially hard. Parenting a toddler while going through six months of chemotherapy is indescribable.
03/19/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

"Try to get some rest and avoid germs," I clearly remember one of my oncologists telling me after a brutal chemotherapy session. I sat there with a perplexed look, trying to soak in what I just heard. I finally said "I have a one-and-a-half-year-old child in the house, just how am I going to do that exactly?" He didn't get it! Most people don't get what it's like to experience cancer with a toddler.

I am a hands-on dad. I changed diapers, I did the feedings, I wiped the runny noses, I went to the birthday parties, the play dates... My son's germs, and the germs of his tiny cohorts are a part of my life. I was living in the petri dish of "toddlerhood," not to mention the utter exhaustion that is a part of everyday with a toddler. It all comes with the territory of being a father, a role I am glad to play.

So here was a doctor telling me to avoid germs and get some rest. It just wasn't practical advice for a young parent. But then again, I didn't fit the bill of most of his patients. I was young, full of energy, in the prime of my life. Looking around the Dana Farber Infusion Center, I was always the youngest one in the room by at least 20 years! I'm sure he had a laundry list of dos and don'ts that he recited throughout the day to all of his patients. Many of things he was saying to me, however, just didn't work for my life. That's when it hit me. I was different. I was in the minority where the "standard procedure" did not apply. I needed to filter the advice I was given, heed what was practical and discard the rest.

Of course, I would be more vigilant due to my weakened immune system. Wash my hands more, sanitize the common areas of the house more often, take a nap whenever I could sneak one in. Vitamin D3 was (and still is) a daily staple of mine. I exercised when I could and tried to stay as fit considering the circumstances. I understood the seriousness of the situation. I knew the consequence a common cold or the flu would have on my chemo-laced body. Still I tried to do everything I could without minimizing the role I played in my son's life. I was determined to keep his life as normal as possible. He was still young enough where I could hide my diagnosis from him, but he was also smart enough to realize something wasn't right. So I walked that fine line of taking care of myself, while still be the same old Daddy my son knew and loved.

Parenting is hard. Parenting a toddler is especially hard. Parenting a toddler while going through six months of chemotherapy is indescribable. I never knew the level of exhaustion the human body was capable of until I experienced chemo. Every day was a challenge for me. No one told my son that things were different, that he needed to adjust his schedule because his daddy was sick. He was still getting up at 6 a.m. (on the good days!). He still needed three or four meals a day. He was too young for potty training, so he needed his diapers changed every few hours. He needed his bedtime stories and to be tucked in his bed at night. Nothing stopped in his world. I still needed to be part of it. There were days I couldn't move, but I forced myself for the sake of my son. Yes, it was my choice to keep up this role. I could have stayed in bed and slept (which I did my fair share of), but I didn't want the cancer to rob me of this special time with my son. I didn't want to miss any of his "firsts," and at 18 months old, he was doing something new every day.

I look back on the decisions I made and I wouldn't change a thing. I did what I felt was best for me and my family. I believe each person's cancer journey is unique. Especially how it affects you and how you choose to fight it. The amount of information, advice, etc., from doctors, books, journals, and the various medical media source can be overwhelming. I learned that I needed to do what works best for me, even if it was against conventional wisdom. I tailored the information and advice and made it work for my lifestyle. I was going to have a say in how I dealt with this. Hopefully, I did what was best for my son.

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