A Child’s Understanding of Cancer

A Child’s Understanding of Cancer

June 8, 2016

“What’s cancer, grandpa?”

“An illness, buddy. It’s when you’re sick and trying to get better.”

“Do you have cancer?”

The voice belonged to a 7-year-old child so near and dear to me. With his bright blue eyes and face of innocence, he pondered the question many his age might pose.

How did he know? From where might he have heard my dilemma? How do you explain cancer to a youngster?

I made it a point to refrain from divulging the news to my six grandchildren. I didn’t want them to be traumatized in any way. The two eldest — ages 14 and 12 — may handle it better as adolescents. But what of the other four who range in age from 4 to 10?

News gets around. Children are perceptive when it comes to picking up a word here and there. In the course of everyday conversation, the word “cancer” may have aroused their senses, especially when it hits home so blatantly.

‘The voice belonged to a 7-year-old child so near and dear to me. With his bright blue eyes and face of innocence, he pondered the question many his age might pose.’

“I’ll leave it to you in explaining the circumstances to the grandkids,” I told my children. “Be as candid as you feel. Or say nothing at all. I would rather them not know. Would they understand anyway?”

Over the past 45 years, I have spent Sunday mornings teaching Armenian School classes to my students in church. The parents I started with in 1970 have now given way to their offspring. To say I’ve grown accustomed to their lives is putting it mildly. It’s become that personal.

I left it to the parents in dealing with the situation. The teenagers would be told. The children could be spared the news. The last thing I would ever want is to see some child being tormented with pity on my account.

It’s always a challenge getting rambunctious students to simmer down first thing Sunday morning. On this day, they sat in their chairs, hands folded, ready to learn the native language of their ancestors. Not a peep, really, arousing my suspicion.

“We would like to read from our textbooks and write the lesson,” said one. “Thank you for being such a nice teacher.”

Maybe my ears needed a cleaning.

Another offered up a hearty “good morning” in our ethnic tongue. The kid had never spoken two words before and was now taking an initiative. He wanted to make me proud.

My cancer was no longer a secret. The entire church congregation was made aware.

As we approach this weekend, hundreds will be gathered on the track at Northern Essex Community College. After 22 years, the Relay for Life knows no hiatus. It’s the light of hope for many of us. And children will be a tangible part of the event.

My intent is to walk with each of my six grandchildren alone, whether they’re savvy about my illness or not. Then perhaps a group lap together. Inquisitive minds may have their moments. Perhaps this may be a good time to become up front and personal with life’s extreme obstacles.

I know it will make me resolute in my demeanor, surrounded by my loved ones. In the end, it may be the ideal panacea. Chemo is one thing. Love is another.

Allow me to share some personal notes I’ve received from children. An 8-year-old sent me a heart sketch with the words: “I hope you are doing well and am always thinking of you.”

His older sister forwarded a more elaborate drawing of multi-layered hearts bursting with color. It carried this message: “I hope you are doing well. You will always be in my prayers and I think of you every day.” Signed, with love.

I remember having their mom in class. Her words touched my heart. “As you face the hard time, I’m keeping you close to my heart. Hoping you have more and more good days. I want you to know that I’m here for you.”

I may be doing more laps this weekend at the Relay for Life than I had anticipated. After signing up my Team Ararat, a number of people came forward with a pledge. A cousin of mine made two contributions, one for herself and another celebrating her brother’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Could there be a better gift than one marked by sentiment?

I saw a family at Dana-Farber on a recent visit and it stopped me in my tracks. A father was carrying his daughter and it didn’t take a psychic to figure it out. The girl, no more than a toddler, was wearing a wrap around her head. It was obvious. She was here for a cancer treatment.

We may complain of our hardships, but it isn’t until you see a child battling such a disease when it punctures your heart. The illness could have badgered one of my own grandchildren.

We may survive. No, we WILL survive, only because the children will allow us.


Editor’s Note: Columnist Tom Vartabedian is writing a series of columns to share his experiences as he battles cancer. The columns are appearing in the Haverhill Gazette, where he worked for years. The Armenian Weekly will share these stories with its readers.

Source: Armenian Weekly Mid-West