Earlier this year, Matt posted the following blog on his website. He was shocked by the response. “The comments and emails came flooding in,” Matt said. Read about what it’s really like to be a cancer dad, and check out Matt’s follow-up post about what he’s learned from his fellow cancer dads since then.
Matt holds his daughter, Sally. Sally was diagnosed with leukemia as an infant.
But judging by the articles and comments you see out there, you’d never know that many dads play an active role in their child’s cancer fight. From the numerous “Things Only Cancer Moms Know” articles that have nothing mom-specific listed, to the term “momcologist,” the overwhelming majority of articles on cancer parents only focus on the mothers.
We even see it on Sally’s and other childhood cancer patients’ Facebook pages. Many comments are specifically directed at the mothers, not both parents. I can’t tell you how many private messages we receive directed only to Nicole, my wife, when I’m the one who reads most of them and handles the replies.
Matt plays with Sally in her hospital bed.
Dads can’t breastfeed. Dads don’t give the same reassuring motherly snuggles. Moms have a special nurturing skill that has survived thousands of years of evolution. Frankly, most moms do it better.
However, that does not, and should not, discount the roles that many cancer dads play. Every time I visit the hospital I see plenty of fathers and grandfathers. Through social media I have become friendly with cancer dads all over the country, the only other guys who can relate to how I feel. We are often relegated to supporting roles — not by choice, but by need.
In most cases it’s the father who has no choice but to keep his full-time job to maintain the funds needed for living expenses and hospital bills, as well as the elephant in the room, health insurance.
I’ll tell you firsthand that coming to the office every day and not being there for your child fighting a life-threatening disease is incredibly frustrating and leaves us feeling useless.
Sally smiles in the comfort of her home.
Now imagine working with a hangover every day for months or years. Or try showing up at work for a busy day of meetings after a night where you rushed your child to the hospital with a seizure.
You come to work with the added stress of knowing you’re unintentionally not performing to your potential, which comes with a lot of guilt. I know parents who have not been able to maintain their jobs as a result of the stress and exhaustion.
Sally watches from the crib as she receives chemotherapy.
I hear all updates secondhand from Nicole, and rarely get to ask questions directly to the doctors. I keep a log of all of Sally’s treatments and blood counts so I feel involved. Nicole grows frustrated when I don’t recall something she’s relayed to me, but it’s harder to grasp everything when you’re hearing it all in one conversation instead of living it day in and day out. It creates a tension that likely wouldn’t be as strong if we were both at the hospital daily.
Sally and Matt pose at a party.
There’s nothing quite like breaking the news to a 7- and 4-year-old that their little sister had to be rushed into the hospital again and somebody not named Mom or Dad would be picking them up from school the rest of the week. Or explaining what a seizure is. Or answering all of the questions they have, like is their sister going to die?
There are also the added day-to-day roles that dad often picks up so Mom can get some much-needed sleep, or because she is stuck at the hospital.
I echo a fellow cancer dad in calling on dads and men to play a more active role both in their families and in the childhood cancer community. It shouldn’t take cancer to inspire dads to become more active parents — anyone can and should do it.
Sally smiles for the camera.
If you know one, or are married to one, be sure to tell them they’re doing a good job, even if what they’re doing isn’t always seen.
Not cancer moms. Not cancer dads.
Childhood cancer affects the whole family. It’s not too late to do something to help.
Read Matt’s follow-up post about what he’s learned from his fellow cancer dads.