Our daughter, Taylor, was diagnosed with cancer at the age of eleven. Overnight, our family was thrust into the world of pediatric cancer. We barely got our feet on the ground before we were bombarded with treatment plans, biopsy results, and words we couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand.
As I was trying to make sense of this new world into which I was suddenly thrust, my intuition reminded me that my most important job was to maintain my composure so as to not scare Taylor. I kept silently repeating to myself, No matter what, she has to believe that Mommy and Daddy will make everything all better. My instincts were spot on, but this was not always easy.
I learned a lifesaving lesson that worked for me throughout Taylor’s illness. I strived to compartmentalize my thoughts. I embraced all the joy and happiness on the good days, and on the days Taylor was suffering, I allowed the extreme sadness and anxiety to take control, although I always tried my best to hide it from Taylor. This allowed me to achieve my greatest victory, allowing Taylor to live every moment she could, as if she were just a kid with cancer, instead of a “cancer kid.” From egg throwing fights to splatter paint to teaching her to drive before she got her license, every day was a new adventure and although I often felt like a kindergarten teacher, I was elated at being able to give Taylor a gift I had control over, at a time when we had no control.
In addition, my husband, Bob, and I never stopped being a team and worked extremely hard to complement each other throughout our daughter’s battle. We each took on different roles and responsibilities: Bob alone would meet with the doctors, while I stayed with Taylor. I was responsible for Taylor’s day-to-day care: tracking all of her medications, learning how to minimize her suffering, and making chemo life fun. Bob, on the other hand, diligently researched treatments online almost every night and got many second opinions. This strategy worked well for us, as Taylor never felt abandoned and I didn’t have to hear what the doctors had to say.
Lastly, one of our hardest hurdles was making sure our other children didn’t get overlooked, both literally and emotionally. We tried to impress upon them that they were not alone in their emotions. We still went on family vacations when possible, brought them to the hospital for overnight “sleepovers,” and made sure they understood how much they were loved.
Ultimately, there’s no way for anyone to completely avoid the fear and concomitant pain that comes along with a cancer diagnosis; however, if you insist on living life on your own terms, it allows you to live with meaning and purpose. Find a reason to be happy, a reason to laugh, and a reason to love. If all else fails, remember my daughter’s favorite saying: “When life stinks; wear a helmet!”
Sue Matthews, along with her sister Andrea Cohane, is the author of Paint Your Hair Blue: A Celebration of Life with Hope for Tomorrow in the Face of Pediatric Cancer. She is President of the Taylor Matthews Foundation, a tay-bandz organization, which is a 501 C-3 founded by her then 11 year old daughter Taylor, who lost her battle with pediatric cancer at age 16. The foundation is at the forefront of new initiatives in awareness and continues to fund medical research at leading medical centers, with the hope of a brighter future for parents struggling with the needs of a sick child.