You’ve finally begun to feel like you’ve truly settled into your host country and that it could be a place to stay indefinitely with your family. Work is fulfilling. The family is healthy and life is good.
But one day, your 8-year old daughter falls and bumps her leg. Shortly thereafter, she complains of pain and her leg swells rapidly.
A visit to your family doctor leads to a hospital visit and the next thing you know, you’re the recipient of a frightening diagnosis – osteogenic sarcoma. Then the echo of the doctor’s translation of the medical term hits you like a ton of bricks – “Bone cancer. Maybe six months to live.”
What do you do? Where do you go from here?
My Father’s Story
This is a glimpse into a family’s experience with childhood cancer, from a father’s perspective. The life-changing ordeal took place over 30 years ago. The 8-year old girl was my sister, Chinyere (pronounced chee-nyuh-ray). She lost her entire left leg to cancer at age 8. My dad was generous enough to share his personal experience with me during this challenging time in his parenting journey – far, far away from his home country.
What were your first thoughts when you got Chinyere’s diagnosis?
The first thing that came to my mind was denial that Chinyere’s diagnosis could be true given the protection I gave my children and the relatively happy childhood and tight family life we enjoyed, especially good health. Then I questioned myself about what I could have done wrong to deserve this tragic surprise. Was it the food, the medicines given at some point, lifestyle or what? Even though I have a medical background, I still questioned myself about a variety of things. I was not depressed, but close to it.
How did you support and nurture Chinyere through the chemotherapy treatments?
After a very brief period of intense sadness, I quickly resolved to focus on my sick child and do everything possible to assist her medically, emotionally and psychologically. She was very young, but she had heard about cancer as a deadly disease. Fortunately, my family was a nurturing and very close family. That was very important for me because a dysfunctional family would have made things worse for everyone.
To support Chinyere and obtain the best possible treatment for her, I searched the literature and journals for current remedies. Fortunately, I was in an environment and position academically to let me do this. Even if my environment was different, I would still have researched treatment and care for the best treatment.
I have been very close to my children so it wasn’t difficult for me to strengthen my closeness to Chinyere with positive words of encouragement. Both of us were in the fight to save her life. She knew that through my actions, words and deeds.
We hugged and talked a lot. Her mother and I brought her favourite toy and sometimes food to the hospital. She was rarely alone except for very brief moments. I explained her treatment regimen in simple terms and refused to allow her to suffer unnecessary medical procedures.
Sometimes we sang our favourite songs which I taught my children and which I learned as a child, growing up in another culture. I made Chinyere laugh most of the time and told bedside stories from my cultural background.
It was absolutely clear to Chinyere that I was 100% on her side with support and protection. I found ways to ameliorate the side effects of chemotherapy. With me around, Chinyere had little to worry about to the extent that she was concerned about me when she went in for surgery.
We were both thinking positively. We shared many meals together. The downside was that I tended to forget my other children while being consumed with doing something to save one daughter. My wife was key to letting me know that the other children also needed my presence and support. Each of my children was experiencing this ordeal with the family, especially my senior daughter.
I think it was important that Chinyere had the explanation of an anticipated treatment from me first – before the doctors and specialists. I had the doctors explain everything to me and I simplified it for Chinyere in a normal and positive manner. This made it less of a surprise for her when some horrible treatments were undertaken. My explanations were coupled with outcomes and expectations including discomfort and pain.
What tips and strategies do you have for parents who may be facing a frightening health experience with their child, such as a childhood cancer diagnosis, while living abroad?
I was living abroad, away from my own zone of cultural comfort when my daughter fell ill with a frightening condition. In fact, her mother and I are from two different cultures! My strategy may not suit every situation, but it worked very well for me.
Chinyere is one of two children who survived their illness out of eleven children with a similar diagnosis in the hospital at the time. Perhaps things would have been different if my daughter did not have strong psychological and emotional support when she herself was thinking of the worst outcome as a child. Living abroad, all I have is my immediate family as my foundation during difficult times.
My father suggests the following tips for coping with a serious diagnosis in the family:
- Get over the initial shock of the diagnosis very quickly. Otherwise, your judgement could become clouded by feelings of guilt and pity. That does not make the situation any better.
- Immediately draw your child, or affected family member, close to you with credible support and caring. It must be obvious that you care and are willing to do everything to get a better outcome. In particular, nurture the child, show love beyond what you would usually show when things are “normal”.
- Encourage positive thinking and participate in the same journey with the child or affected family member. People tend to get sicker and frustrated when they are emotionally negative and psychologically questioning everything. Research has shown that our emotions have a lot to do with how we cope and recover from illness. People go downhill when they think the world is against them, especially when they are sick.
- Search for the best remedy or treatment. Don’t take everything the doctor said for granted. Research the condition and treatment. When in doubt, seek a second opinion and make sure you’re included in discussions in treatment facilities.
- Explain everything going on to your child, or family member, and include them in family discussions. You may be less apprehensive and afraid when you know what is going to happen ahead of time.
- Find ways to relax the family beyond your usual ways. Consider everyone in the same boat. Do not ignore family members and over concentrate on an immediate task affecting your ill child.
- Get everyone to think positively regardless of what the outcome has been in similar cases. Your outcome may be different because of your family dynamics, psychological profiles and coping mechanisms. Be sad in private, and with professional support if necessary, so as not to negatively influence young family members. Much later, you will be surprised at how well you and your family have coped in difficult times. I am.
The world needs your help to fight cancer
I am the proud sister to a thriving cancer survivor. We are children of a courageous parent who carved out a family life in a new culture abroad.
Our parents knew the power of being anchored and close to one another when struggling to battle childhood cancer in our family. The good news is that the cancer treatment that my sister received in Canada in the 1980’s saved her life.
The bad news is that researchers still have more to do in the fight against cancer. Research isn’t free. We can all help no matter where we live in the world. Whether you’re living in your home country or abroad, you can help the world get closer to beating cancer by donating to cancer research.
Click here to hear my sister tell you exactly why we need your help her own words.
Positive, nurturing and present-oriented parenting is key to supporting a sick child abroad. (Click to Tweet!)
What comments do you have about health and family wellness abroad?
This was a generous sharing of personal experience from a courageous parent abroad – my own father.
What insights do you have? What have you discovered about parenting a sick child abroad? Please feel free to share in the comments below.