Nothing prepares a parent for the unwelcome diagnosis of cancer in a child.
And after the shock, the disbelief, the panic and feelings of paralysis, there will come a time when, second only to prayer, common sense will become your dearest and most important friend on this difficult journey.
Prayer and common sense will be your guiding light through every step of this crisis.
Here’s how it all began for us, and the lessons I can share.
I’m an African-American single mom of three in the Atlanta, Georgia, area, and Poppy, my middle child, was 13 when she was diagnosed with cancer. We were horrified. From the time she was about 10 years old, Poppy loved to dance. She was happy, generous and strong, and then she began having pain in her right leg knee area.
She was unable to stand for long periods of time.
We eventually learned that Poppy had a tumor on her distal femur, and this particular cancer was called osteosarcoma. We moved into the hospital for her to undergo 10 weeks of chemo, surgery for a partial leg amputation, and then another 10 weeks of chemo. That was followed by many months of physical therapy, which Poppy still does today.
On the day of diagnosis, the shock knocked me to the ground. Soon after, I voluntarily returned there, but this time on my knees. I knew I couldn’t do this alone, and my steadfast belief in the Almighty would become a critical part of my journey. I credit my weekly fast, also done by others in my church, for helping me stay focused in my prayers and meditation.
Ultimately it would be my faith and trust in God that gave me the strength to support my daughter in making smart treatment decisions that could bring her the highest quality of life. I prayed for God’s guidance to help me make the right decisions that would impact how she lived, so that Poppy would have the highest quality of life as a survivor. And, unfortunately, my own God-given tool of common sense during this uncommon, senseless time didn’t come easy.
Here are the steps I embraced to give me strength, hope and the ability to make decisions that made sense. I hope these steps work for others as well.
1: Set goals for now and for later.
Cancer would take away my daughter’s hair temporarily and part of her leg permanently — but I needed to be sure it wouldn’t take away her spirit, faith and chance to have a wonderful and productive future. I learned to fight the cancer with my eye on today while fighting for the future with my eye on tomorrow. When we reviewed the treatment protocols, clinical trials, side effects and processes, we also talked about plans for her future. We never stopped fighting or dreaming.
2: Ask and ask again.
While this may seem obvious, pediatric oncologists are not on every block, so securing a second opinion isn’t always easy or fast. But it is possible and can be extremely important. I got to know Poppy’s entire team and worked with the local community childhood cancer group to arrange introductions to other families who had the same or similar diagnoses. I was faced with having to sign a document that would affect my daughter for the rest of her life, so I asked questions over and over and over. Sometimes it’s important to get a second opinion from an expert at another hospital. Take the time to find that. Do what you need to do. Go the extra mile. Your child is depending on it.
3: Accept support.
Even in crisis, it is often hard to accept help, especially from strangers, but you must because the demands will be overwhelming. Just as important, you need people who have been through the same experience to share emotional and practical guidance. In Atlanta, my burdens have been shared by CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit that funds research and serves patients and families from diagnosis through survivorship.
Today, Poppy is focused on having a full life, even hoping to share her love of dance with others by one day opening a dance studio that caters to kids with prosthetic limbs.
As for me, her proud mother, I have taken this experience and decided to go back to school for my master’s degree in rehab counseling and case management so that I can use what I have learned to help other people.
In early January, another osteosarcoma nodule was surgically removed and we hope is now gone forever from my daughter’s leg. But if it comes back, we will keeping fighting and finding strength through the power of prayer. And, as before, when I run out of words — I will reach out to my church family, friends and others to pray for us and hold us close in their thoughts.