When Your Child has Cancer
14 lessons in faith and hope from a father who’s been there.
Editor's note: Thank God, today, five years after the chemo, the author's son is a fit and healthy 17-year-old, about to take his driving test.
September 29, 2007. 11.00 am.
I am sitting in Mount Scopus Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem waiting for the surgeons to remove a golf-ball-size growth from my 12-year-old son's stomach. A week or so later they tell us it's malignant.
We spent the next four months in the children's oncology ward at the Hadassah Hospital at Ein Kerem. The craziest four months of my life.
But this is not about cancer, despair or depression. It's about life, faith and hope. And how you can transform anything that happens to you into a learning, growing and positive experience.
When the going gets tough and life serves up those cruel curve balls, we all need a healthy outlook on life, the right perspective and a proven box of tricks to react and act in the right way.
At a click of a mouse, you want to link into happiness, optimism and hope instead of sadness, depression and despair.
You may not have control over what happens in your life but you can certainly control how you respond.
Thankfully, by my son's bed, God gave me the opportunity to do just that. And now I see how the experience was a blessing (although I don’t know if my son sees it that way yet).
In life-threatening situations, it's easy to reach lofty understandings and life truths. Because you automatically focus on what is truly important.
The big challenge is to translate this wisdom into daily life. And that's a constant struggle. But that's what life is all about. Growing in small, incremental steps. Every single day.
Lesson #1: Discover Truth for Yourself
Just because a book has been in the New York Times bestseller list for months does not mean it's a good book. Just because someone else thinks a particular career is right for you doesn't mean it is.
It was the same with the cancer. At first, we were completely at the 'mercy' of the medical staff, blindly accepting their every word and instruction.
As time went on though, we became more knowledgeable, more aware and more involved. We asked more questions (with the encouragement of the doctors) and we were able to check they were giving the right dosages of the right drugs at the right time.
It's your life. Don't let anyone else live it for you.
Takeaway: By all means ask for different opinions but make sure the final decision is yours.
Lesson #2: Always Look for the Positive
This does not mean ignore the negative or become numb to the tragedies. It means make an effort to find the positive in every person and in everything that happens in your life.
We were witness to tremendous pain and suffering, yet at the same time we saw an unbelievable outpouring of human warmth and kindness. That was our focus and that's what kept us upbeat and optimistic.
It's all about focus. It can be cold and raining outside but you can feel warm and sunny inside. And if you just look hard enough, you'll find the positive in everything.
Takeaway:Think of one person you don't get on with. Find at least one or two good things about them and focus on those. Focus on your own positive traits too!
Lesson #3: You Can Adapt to Anything
We had to change our lives overnight. New routine, new priorities and no chance of holding down our jobs.
My wife and I took turns spending 24 hours with our son, Gilad. We had little time for our five other children and the daily chores were left undone.
But because it was so obviously the priority in our life at the time; because our lives (and surely our son's life) depended on it, we just did it. We had no choice but to adapt.
What would you do if your life depended on it? Do it now! Don't wait for the curve balls to force you into change.
Takeaway: Go make that change you know you need to make. You can do it!
Lesson #4: Constantly Ask Yourself "What am I Living For?"
Perhaps the biggest question of them all. If you're faced with death, you must become real with life.
Any of us could depart this world without prior warning. What guarantee do any of us have that we're going to wake up tomorrow morning? How do you know that just because you're reading this sentence, you won't drop dead before reading the next one?
In the cancer ward, or at a funeral, the stark realization of my mortality hits me like a ton of bricks. We're only here for a short time and we don't even know how short. What's important to you? What are your goals in life? Prioritize. Don't just drift through the routines of life.
Live for your goals. Live for your dreams. Relish the moment.
What are you prepared to live for?
Don't despair if you don't come up with answers. It can sometimes take years to find your life's purpose. But never stop asking.
Takeaway: Don't drift through life. Ask yourself every day: "What am I here for? What possible reasons could God have had for putting me here right now?"
Lesson #5: Feel the Pain
If you want healthy, successful relationships in your life, you must develop a sensitivity to the pain of others. And if you can't feel the pain, at least feel the pain of not being able to feel the pain!
We were in a ward with many Arab children. But here we were on the same side of the battle. Political, national and religious differences immediately melt away and you simply see another human being in pain.
When we remember all human beings are created in the image of God, and everyone is here for a purpose, it becomes easier to eliminate the prejudices and the differences and focus on the common.
Takeaway: The next time you see someone in pain, try putting yourself in their shoes.
Lesson #6: Cry
Learn to cry. Let the tears flow. Don't hold back. No one will think you are less macho because of it.
I cried a lot throughout our brush with cancer. Tears are a tremendous gift. They remind us we're human. They remind us we're not callous brutes. They also help release tension and deep feelings in a way words cannot express and they help us identify with the pain of others.
And, like prayer, no tear is ever wasted...
Takeaway: It's okay to cry.
Lesson #7: You are Never Alone
During the chemo it was a tremendous comfort and support to receive calls from friends just calling to say, "I'm thinking of you."
My wife and I were at Gilad's side 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This gave him tremendous security and confidence during his stay in hospital.
And even after all the friends have left, or your parents are no longer with you... even when you're alone awake at two in the morning next to your sick kid's bed, God is with you at all times. He is our eternal parent, with us every single second, during the good times as well as the bad.
You are never alone.
We may not be God, but we can certainly call people to tell them we care. Even if they are not experiencing tragedy. Even if we don't need anything from them.
Every show of sensitive concern showers so much warmth, self-confidence and happiness on the recipient. And brings much more goodness into the world.
Takeaway: Call a friend today!
Lesson #8: Keep Your Worries in Proportion
Most things in life are not life and death issues; serious maybe, but not life and death.
We saw a lot of life and death in the time we were in the hospital, so we knew we were very 'lucky.' Kids born with leukemia going through two years of treatment that might not work, kids with cancer for the second, third or fourth time, endless pain and suffering... and yes, we saw death too.
Our priority was getting through this. We didn't appreciate what ‘aggressive treatment' meant until we spent almost four consecutive months in the hospital with my wife and I rotating shifts.
That was our full-time job.
Thank God, we had financial help, help with the kids and help with everything else. Our community was absolutely amazing. Over 50 women cooked meals for us during that time – I've never eaten so well in my life! Someone did our shopping every week and people even came in to do laundry and wash the dishes.
Hakuna Matata. No worries.
Indeed, once we realize the Almighty is taking care of our health, finances and daily maintenance every second of the day, we have no worries.
And since then, whether it was during chemotherapy or any other stressful event, I use this technique to focus on doing what I can do and leaving what I can't to God.
Takeaway: Focus on what you have. Not on what you don't have.
Lesson #9: The Power of Prayer
Once my son's situation became known, people all over the world began to pray for him, recite Psalms, take on commitments not to gossip and many other things we don't even know about.
A friend set up a Facebook "Pray for Gilad" group that attracted over 4,000 members, most of whom did not even know us!
Like the tears we talked about in Lesson #6, prayer is another thing bigger than us. No prayer is wasted.
With that realization, everything you do takes on a new dimension. You suddenly take more care and put more effort into every word of prayer, every word you say, every mundane action.
You suddenly become acutely aware of the extreme consequences of your every move.
God might not answer in the way you want, but that too is for a reason we do not always understand.
Takeaway: Pray today with all your heart for something you truly desire.
Lesson #10: People Want to Give
In the hospital, we were witness to overflowing goodness and unlimited giving. From family and friends to complete strangers just turning up to be with us or to give Gilad a word of encouragement.
Someone brought us a tub of Ben and Jerry's at two in the morning... a friend drove four hours just to play Scrabble with me in the hospital, a famous rabbi cried over the phone... and a constant stream of visitors and volunteers throughout the day!
One of our greatest tests in life is knowing how to receive. Often, people want to give more than you need to receive. Let them. Be prepared to receive any help, whether physical or emotional, direct or indirect; simply, with gratitude and a pleasant countenance.
Be ready to deal sensitively with people who wanted to help but didn't know how. Even make up things they can do for you! Not because you need it.
But because they do.
Know that all this human kindness is just a shimmering reflection of the Almighty's unbounded, incomprehensible Goodness. He gives. No limits. No conditions.
Takeaway: If you're in trouble, let people give to you. If someone else is, give something – however small – of yourself.
Lesson #11: Every Second Counts
That's what the IV drip showed me.
I spent hours next to that thing so I can impersonate all the noises – when the bag is empty, when air gets caught in the tubes or when the battery's running low.
But every drip and every drop... is life.
Even though the doctors knew the treatment for my son's particular form of Burkitt's Lymphoma, there is never any guarantee it will work. You still have to pray every drop flows exactly to the right spot, every single cell in your child's body reacts as it should and every nurse does exactly the right thing at the right time. Any minor error in dosage could be critical.
The Almighty gives us life with every breath we take. But we take it for granted.
Remember Who's watching you. Remember Who's keeping you alive. With every single breath.
Takeaway: The first thing a Jew does when he opens his eyes in the morning is to thank God for returning his soul to him and giving him a new day. Think about it. Then thank.
Lesson #12: Relationships 101
Just before we started the chemo, a wise man gave us two important pieces of advice:
- Do not cry in front of your child.
- Dress your best when you come to the hospital.
Realize how much influence you have on your surroundings just by the mood you're in or how you look.
And the silver rule in human relationships: Just because you're having a bad day doesn't mean everyone else has to suffer. Your face is public property.
The story is told of the late and great Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach. On the night his wife died, he was standing in the hospital coping with his grief. Just then, one of his students noticed him and rushed over to tell him his wife had just given birth. The student was so excited he didn't think to ask his Rabbi what he was doing there at that time of night.
Rabbi Auerbach gave the man his fondest blessing with his usual smile, full of warmth and joy. And the student walked away beaming, completely oblivious to the fact that his Rabbi had just lost his lifelong partner.
Takeaway: This is not easy at all. But if you can control your emotions, you will become a source of great strength to yourself and those around you. Put a smile on your face and try it!
Lesson #13: Take One Step at a Time
When your goals or projects seem so far away, focus on the next step. It's far more doable than trying to reach the final, seemingly so distant and impossible goal.
This was clear to me as I spent hours at my son's bedside listening to the incessant drip of the chemotherapy. Every drop had to reach the right cell and do what it had to do – gradually, drop by drop.
We can only achieve great things in little steps. Small, consistent efforts. Every single day.
Takeaway: Choose a goal you've been neglecting. What is the next little step you must take to propel yourself in the right direction? Take it. Today.
Lesson #14: Getting the Message
Now, five years out of my son's chemotherapy, I am able to see the good that came out of that situation. It didn't take me five years to realize this, but sometimes it does. And longer.
Suffering, stress and tragedy all have a purpose. It's up to us to discover what that purpose is.
God is sending us messages all the time. We have the choice of receiving those messages, listening and acting.
Or we can ignore them, wallow in our grief and blame everyone and everything apart from ourselves.
If God is all knowing, all powerful and all good, nothing just happens. There are no coincidences or accidents. Wrestling with suffering means seeing all events as meaningful. Living with this attitude enables us to see God's guiding hand in our daily life.
There is a principle in Judaism called "measure for measure," which loosely means, "the consequence fits the action." To help you figure out the message, God will often send it through a medium related to the thing you need to improve.
No, it's not always easy to figure out the message. And yes, we might interpret the wrong message. But that's a lot better than ignoring it completely.
Because if we ignore the message and attribute whatever happens to us to mere chance, we rob ourselves of potential growth and meaning and waste the opportunity to further develop our closeness with God.
Some experiences may seem bad at the moment, because we lack the perspective of the big picture. Like a good movie, which leads us to think we know what's going to happen in the end, only to surprise or shock us with the ending. The director simply had the whole script in his hands when he started.
Or like the flip side of an intricate tapestry, seeing a whole bunch of unconnected strands and threads. It's only when we turn the cloth and see the completed artwork that we realize each strand has its place.
So what's the big takeaway from suffering?
Well, when we strive to live with the consciousness that all events serve a higher purpose and are precisely what we need at that moment, we can slowly learn to recognize the true good that lies beneath every situation.
Wrestling with suffering enables us to use every experience as a tool for elevation, seeing it as a vital, personal lesson and an opportunity to strengthen our trust in God's unending goodness.
Know there is a constructive purpose and meaning to the difficult times you go through. It won’t erase the pain, but it can certainly make it easier to bear.
And remember – if you woke up this morning, it could be a sign that God had enough faith in you to give you another day.
This is an extract from the author's 39-page e-book – which also includes insights from his Israeli Army experiences and other life adventures. Click here to get a free pdf copy.