Cancer Treatment Centers of America

7 years later, 7 lessons learned from my dad’s cancer journey

NOTE: The following story is not about a CTCA patient.

My dad George’s cancer diagnosis shook the whole family. He was the strong one, the athlete, weight lifter, health enthusiast. How could it be? In the days that followed, we began to realize life wouldn’t be the same again.

It’s been seven years since this journey began. My dad’s spirit lives on in his warm smile, calm presence, integrity and fairness. It also lives on through the lessons he taught us. I’m writing this article so other families who have been touched by cancer can learn from our experience.

Lesson one: If you notice a change in your health, don’t ignore it. If your doctors won’t take it seriously, make them.

Looking back, my dad had symptoms for months leading up to his cancer diagnosis. The anemia, fatigue and back pain were all red flags. He went to his internist and a chiropractor, but the symptoms persisted. We were all a little naïve back then.

Eventually, my dad’s back pain became so severe that he couldn’t get out of bed. A trip to the hospital and a number of tests later, we learned he had 11 broken vertebrae in his back. Something was very wrong. It may be osteoporosis, said the doctor, or—worst case scenario—cancer. We all braced ourselves for the news.

On October 26, 2001, we received the diagnosis: stage III multiple myeloma. My dad was immediately put on an intensive treatment regimen. The living room was transformed into a hospital room. Daily activities like dressing, bathing and going to the bathroom were suddenly a challenge for him.

Lesson two: Don’t put off doing things that make you happy.

That summer, the doctors talked about the possibility of a stem cell transplant and in July 2002, my dad had an autologous transplant. This was a turning point in his journey. Finally, he started to feel a little better. He had a new lease on life. He traveled, went hiking, ate at nice restaurants and reunited with old friends.

Although he physically wasn’t the same as before—he carried a walking stick and he needed to rest more often—my dad was determined to enjoy life as much as possible. It took his illness for us to realize that our “busy lives” could and should include doing fun things too. We joined him on his adventures and cherished the time together.

Lesson three: Let the person with cancer handle it his/her own way.

For the next three years, my dad continued to take medicine to suppress the disease and his results were promising. Yet, the threat of the cancer recurring was always present. We each handled our fears differently.

My brother was the worrier, constantly asking my dad how he was feeling and advising him not to push too hard. My stepmom was the coach, urging him to do more, fight harder. I was the denier, trying to pretend things were normal and telling my dad everything would be okay.

I remember one day, he handed me an article about how people with cancer often just want someone to listen. At that moment, I realized my dad needed to handle the disease in a way that worked for him, not us. From then on, we stopped talking and did a lot more listening.

Lesson four: When someone you love is sick, take an active role in his/her care.

Eventually, my dad’s health began to decline and in the winter of 2005, we learned the cancer had returned. That summer, he started to lose feeling in his legs and was back in the hospital. This began the next phase of the journey.

We quickly realized that my dad’s needs were not being met at our hometown hospital, due to poor communication among his doctors and disorganization within the system. To ensure he received proper care, my family and I set up shifts for visiting him. To this day, I don’t know what it would have been like for him if we weren’t there to help.

When we weren’t working with the doctors and nurses to care for my dad, our days and nights consisted of sitting by my dad’s bedside while he was in and out of sleep. We watched Seinfeld episodes, reminisced and kept a positive attitude for him.

Lesson five: If you love someone, tell them. Now.

Even after we discovered the cancer had spread to his spinal cord, my dad refused to give up. As we watched him hold onto life, we held onto every day, every minute with him. We were fortunate to be able to say what we needed to say, and we were all with him when he passed away the morning of August 1, 2006.

Lesson six: Sometimes good things can come from bad.

My dad’s cancer brought my family closer together in many ways. We now tell each other how we feel more often, we let little issues go without even looking back, and we try not to take each other for granted. All of these things we didn’t understand or appreciate before my dad’s illness brought them to light.

My dad loved life up until his last day. Seven years later, I continue to apply his lessons of love, strength and gratitude…which brings me to the last, and perhaps the most important, lesson: Life is for living to the fullest, so go out and do it.