As I walked to the mailbox the other day, the stack of mail was larger than normal. Envelopes containing graduation announcements were a welcome change, symbolizing an exciting time for both parents and graduates. I was fortunate enough to experience that same excitement last year as I anticipated my eldest participating in the ritual. But, my anticipation was different than what most parents experienced.
I was riddled with anxiety and a fear that I hadn’t felt since the day Zach was diagnosed with cancer.
Who was going to ensure my son’s health was addressed properly? Who was going to be the nagging parent in the background telling a doctor it wasn’t “just a virus”? What if Zach’s knee collapsed walking up the hill to his dorm room? Would the campus clinic staff know what to do with a kid who survived cancer?
All of these thoughts ran through my head for months prior to graduation. Yet, I was still excited for Zach, thinking about the fresh start he would get in college.
As a freshman in high school, he had spent exactly three days in school his first week before his cancer diagnosis. He would return to school the following semester, but it wasn’t the same as being in school full time, and eventually, it changed the course of his high school experience. Many parents of kids with cancer can likely empathize with me. Your child’s “healthy” identity disappears, and they are forever known as the “cancer kid.”
College would be the place where Zach would have control of his identity. Having no visible signs remaining of his disease, he got his healthy identity back. As his mother, I knew the day would come where I would need to shove my little bird out of the nest and let him fly on his own. That day came in the middle of his freshman year in college. I distinctly remember, after dropping him back off at school after a lunch date, an overwhelming feeling of “This is right. He belongs here. He is OK.” I hadn’t felt that way in four years and what a joy it was to feel!
Parents of graduating cancer survivors: Your joy is coming! It does not take away the worry you will always feel, but embrace the next phase of a “healthy” identity for your child and celebrate their “normal” accomplishments, like graduation. It’s a BIG deal!
I cannot protect Zach from everything life will throw at him. I could not protect him from getting cancer, and I cannot protect him from his own body and what harm may have been done to it during his treatment. But I can feel pride, I can feel joy and I can gently push my little bird out of the protective nest with a whisper in his ear – “It’s your time to fly.”
Written by Leah Schulte
My husband, Erin, and I live in Woodbury, MN and are parents to three sons. Zach will be a Sophomore at the University of Eau Claire in the fall, Graham is 16 and will be a Junior in high school, and Keegan will be 14 and entering 8th grade. Zach was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma disease and took a year to diagnose. I am a firm believer in being your child’s best advocate for their health and asking questions to get at the root of the problem. I enjoy writing these blogs as I am inspired and love sharing my experience as a mom/ caretaker during our cancer journey.