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Tip of the Week

7 Life Lessons My Son's Cancer Taught Me

By Gary Roe

I never liked cancer. I like it even less now. 

In my work as a hospice chaplain and grief counselor, I interact with cancer in some way almost every day. Perhaps I'm a bit jaded. All my cases are terminal. Sooner or later, cancer is a killer.

Then, the c-word became extremely personal. 

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

A week later, we got the 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 were thrust into an adventure none of us wanted. Add to this the fact that our son's biological father died of Pancreatic cancer, and the fear factor was way up there. 

Doctors considered our son's case urgent, and the flurry of activity was breathtaking. Tests, blood work, and scans. Appointments, consultations, phone calls, and emails. And then there was the travel. Back and forth, over and over, finally culminating in a more-extensive-than-expected surgery that left our son with a hole in the roof of his mouth slightly larger than a golf ball. 

Then came the recovery, food and drink adjustments, infection concerns, post-op appointments, and so forth. Thankfully, in our case, 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 lucky. Massively fortunate. And the life lessons we learned were priceless.  

  1. 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.

  2. 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 get what's being said in important situations (and that would be every conversation!).

  3. 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. 

  4. Release worry and fear.
    This dynamic duo is not your friend. In the words of one of my hospice patients, "Worry will eat your mind." Fear can throttle your heart.

    Express your thoughts and terrors, and then release them. And keep releasing them. 

  5. Instead of focusing on what happened, decide what you're going to do next.
    Life is always about the next step. Yes, the past is important and informs the present. The choice is yours what to do with it. Like worry and fear, guilt is not your friend. Don't entertain it. Put your wisdom (and that of others) to work, and make the next best choice you can. 

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

    How do you know who to trust? Look at their track record. Are they trustworthy in this area?

  7. 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 curveball might be, I believe these seven things will help you navigate it well. Much of life is about overcoming difficulties and hurdling obstacles. Almost everything seems to present us with opportunities to get outside of ourselves, heal, and grow. 

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.

Gary Roe is an Award-winning author, speaker, grief specialist, and a compassionate and trusted voice in grief-recovery who has been bringing comfort, hope, encouragement, and healing to hurting, wounded hearts for more than 30 years.  Click here to get a free excerpt of his latest award-winning book, Comfort for Grieving Hearts. For more information visit Permission granted for use on   

Tags: Character-Courage-Conscience, Health, Mental Health, Relatives, Stress, Tips
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