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7 Family Life Lessons We Learned From My Son's Cancer

These are the life lessons we learned as a family during our teen's fight with cancer. No matter what the unexpected curve ball might be that your family is dealing with right now, these seven pieces of advice will help you navigate it well.
hospital waiting room
Updated: December 1, 2022

I have seven adopted kids. Our family is a hodge-podge of culture, diversity, and challenge. Sometimes, I’m close to pulling my hair out, but if I’m honest, I love it.

One thing I don’t love; however, is cancer.

More: When a Child Loses a Parent to Cancer

I work as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor. I interact with cancer in some way almost every day. Then one day, things got personal.

During a routine dental cleaning, our hygienist noticed a small abnormality in our 15 year-old son's palate. The dentist got involved, and then a periodontist. Less than a week later, we were in the oral surgeon's office having multiple biopsies.

Then came the lab results. I don't remember much of what the surgeon said because the last word obliterated everything else that came before it.


We were immediately referred to a surgical practice two hours away, because "they deal with tumors like this every day." Suddenly we found ourselves thrust into an unwelcome adventure none of us wanted.

Oh, I should mention our son’s biological father died of pancreatic cancer. The c-word packs a wallop in our household.

Our son's case was urgent, and the flurry of activity was breathtaking. Appointments, tests, blood work, scans, consultations, phone calls, and emails. Then there was the travel - back and forth, over and over, finally culminating in a more-extensive-than-expected surgery. Our son left the hospital with a hole in the roof of his mouth slightly larger than a golf ball.

Then came the recovery. Significant discomfort. Food and drink adjustments. Infection concerns. Post-op appointments. School modifications. And so on.

Thankfully, we got the best possible outcome. Tumor gone. No evidence of cancer anywhere else. No chemo. No radiation. The treatment plan was simple. Be observant, be vigilant, and see the dentist or surgeon every three months for the next five years.

We were fortunate. And the life lessons we learned as a family were priceless.

Expect surprises

Stuff happens. Things will not go the way any of us expect. The road before us isn't smooth or predictable. There will be hiccups. We can make decisions and have some influence, but none of us is in control.

Listen well

When emotions are high, our hearing becomes even more selective than usual. Breathe deeply. Hear the meaning behind the words. Parrot back what we thought we heard. It's essential that we get what's being said in important situations (and that would be every conversation!).

Stay detached enough to be loving

Another way to say this might be, "Don't make it all about you." We need to remain separate enough from those we care about in order to listen well, hear their hearts, and love them. We can't afford to get our hearts confused with theirs. We're in this together, but we are separate individuals.

Release worry and fear

This dynamic duo is not our friend. In the words of one of my hospice patients, "Worry will eat your mind." Fear can throttle our hearts. We can express our thoughts and terrors, and then release them. Yes, they might knock again. Express and release, as many times as needed.

Instead of getting stuck in what happened, decide what to do next

Life is always about the next step. Yes, the past is important and informs the present. The choice is ours what to do with it. Like worry and fear, guilt is not our friend and needs to be shown the door. We can put our wisdom (and that of others) to work, and make the next best choice.

Learn to trust

We're relational creatures. In order to heal and grow in life, we're going to have to be real with someone (hopefully several people) about what's going on inside us. That demands trust.

How do you know who to trust? Look at their track record. Choose wisely.

Be kind, no matter what

From the beginning, we coached ourselves to treat everyone we met on our cancer journey the way we ourselves wanted to be treated. Consideration. Kindness. Respect.

The results were extraordinary. And even if we hadn't been treated in stellar fashion, at least we could sleep at night knowing that we gave away what we ourselves wanted to receive.

I hope cancer isn't the surprise that you're dealing with at present. But whatever that unexpected curve ball might be, I believe these seven things will help you navigate it well. Much of life is about overcoming difficulties and hurdling obstacles.

It's not what you did, but what you do next that matters most now. Life is lived one moment, one step at a time.

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Gary Roe

About Gary

Following a traumatic childhood, Gary started his healing journey when another family took him… Read more

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