I still remember watching the ultrasound of my son's bladder—a strange growth swayed back and forth like a limp piece of spaghetti. My father, a retired physician who had come with us for support, was standing next to me in the examination room watching the monitor, not saying anything.
“Dad, is that a bladder stone?” I asked, hoping that our original hypothesis was correct.
“No,” was all he could manage back.
No one wanted to utter the word “tumor” until the biopsy results came back.
Today, as I hug my youngest son, who is about to turn 13, I can feel the strength of an almost-teenage boy wrapped around me. At least he still wants to hug his mama, I think, comforting myself. And while all the clichés are true: As I find myself the mom to three teenage boys, they grow up in a blink of an eye and—just like that—they are men. But it couldn't be more true of my youngest, who was forced to grow up four years ago when he was only 9. Even at that young age, he was mature enough to tell me when something wasn’t right with his body.
“Mom, I keep needing to go to the bathroom, but hardly anything comes out,” he explained.
“Oh, it’s probably a bladder infection,” I reassured him.
Off to the pediatrician we went, expecting to receive antibiotics to simply resolve his issue. Instead, we left with unanswered questions and the hope that my son’s discomfort would subside. My brother, a gastroenterologist, thought it could be a bladder stone, by the way I described my son’s symptoms over the phone. But a few days later, at the urging of my father, we went to the hospital, where my son received an ultrasound.
My son had heard the word "tumor" before because his grandmother had died from pancreatic cancer a mere two months earlier. When the diagnosis was made official and we had to tell our son he had a rare form of pediatric cancer, he grew up right in front of our eyes.
“Mom, do I have a tumor like Grandma had?” he asked.
He was more curious than scared. And he wanted an answer so he could know what he was facing. At 9 years old, he now had to digest terms like "chemotherapy," "radiation" and "cancer."
For most kids, an illness lasts maybe a week or two (at most) and kids his age know what it’s like to be sick for the short term. They have had their share of strep throat and ear infections.
But, this was different.
While he should have been playing outside with friends and going to school, he was, instead, at home managing his illness with a maturity way beyond his years.
So, 46 weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation required a whole new level of patience, stamina and courage. At 9, my son became so involved in his health, he could understand what was happening to him throughout his treatment. He learned about blood counts, neutropenia and the side effects of his medications. While he should have been playing outside with friends and going to school, he was, instead, at home managing his illness with a maturity way beyond his years.
He rarely complained. The nausea was tough to endure, but he rode it out like a champ. He wasn’t embarrassed by his bald head and he found much of the medical routines, such as blood draws, to be “boring.” I think the worst part for him was the constant hospital visits and the endless waiting around to be seen by the doctors and nurses. I believe the iPad saved his sanity—and mine.
When his treatment was over and he crossed the finish line, my little boy was replaced by a little man. Sure, he went back to doing kid things, like trick-or-treating, attending birthday parties and having playdates. But now, three years have passed and I see how my 7th grader is an older soul versus his peers. He doesn’t get caught up in the middle-school social drama of who is popular and who is not—he couldn’t care less. It’s almost as if he knows that stuff won’t matter years from now. Even my 19-year-old recognizes his maturity. My oldest son tends to be a worrier and can be vocal about his anxiety. My youngest son will immediately pipe in with a piece of advice for him, more or less telling him to put the problems of his life in perspective. My 19-year-old will laugh—declaring, “Ahh, the wisdom of a 12-year-old”—but he also realizes his brother is right on target with his armchair psychology.
On the one hand, a part of me is sad that my pre-teen missed a piece of his childhood while he was fighting cancer for a year; on the other hand, he received an early dose of what it means to battle adversity, which many people don’t encounter until they are much older. He’s had a strength instilled in him that will serve him well as an adult. I can tell already that he’s not going to sweat the small stuff, that he’s going to rally during the downturns of his life and celebrate big time during the upswings. And I also know he understands he’s never too old to give me those great hugs—even when he’s all grown up.