Everyone interprets the word “cancer” differently. When doctors hear the term cancer, they think of mutated cells rapidly multiplying body toxins that the body cannot fight off on its own. When patients hear the term cancer, their world shatters and a rollercoaster of emotions begin. Patients who have families have to find out how to tell their siblings, spouse, and children. Several students throughout West Ottawa have watched their closest family members experience the hardships of cancer but they lock their stories away because not many comprehend the trauma behind what goes on at home during cancer treatment. I had the opportunity to interview several students on how cancer has influenced them.
Student Jenna Horner, 16, is currently living with her older brother, dad, and mom. At 53 years old, Horner’s father, Ken Horner, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. When Horner’s parents talked to her about her dad’s newfound cancer, she said “it was a little earth shattering” because her dad has been someone who had been healthy his whole life and worked hard to support his family. Horner’s dad is someone who helps Horner become a better person, and as she helps her dad, she is hurt to see him weak and vulnerable. Horner’s daily routines have changed as a result of her father’s illness. “I would just say that the house is definitely quieter when he’s doing chemo and we’re all just kind of more somber which is not really normal for my family at all. Now that he’s doing radiation he and my mom are gone for 5 weeks so it’s different to not have my parents at home. I also think I am not home as much when he’s sick from chemo because it’s hard for me to see” Horner said. Not only does the treatment effect Horner’s home life, but also affects both her and her parents social lives. “My parents usually go out at least one night on the weekend and are super social, so it’s definitely had a toll on that. A lot of times my dad doesn’t want to have people over, and my mom wants to stay with him when he’s sick so I think they’re less social because of it.”
Horner claims that her social life has not changed too much, but at times she feels as though she needs to stick with her family instead of going out with friends because she wants to take care of her dad when he is sick. Her father’s cancer has also affected her academics. Horner explained that the experience has been difficult for her to not distract herself and worry about how her dad is feeling but still aims for good grades because she knows it’s important to her parents to do well. She has always been on top of her academics but believes she is more driven now to make sure she succeeds in school. She also explains that “It [the cancer] simultaneously puts things in perspective, like I realize that grades aren’t super important.” One of the most common reasons people hate cancer is because of the fear that comes with it; Horner answered that her worst fear is “that he’s going to be gone… I think a lot that he might not be able to walk me down the aisle when I get married. It’s not something I’ve really had to think about until I found out.” She still cannot comprehend why the world chose for her dad to get cancer but realizes her hardships have impacted her outlook on the world, “It [the cancer] puts my outlook on the world in a greater perspective about what’s really important. Also about how the world works, because it’s not even close to fair and that’s something that this situation has shown me.” Horner’s experience with her dad’s cancer has ultimately changed her, but not everybody realizes what she is going through at home. Her dad is currently away for radiation in Wisconsin, and she worries every day about how he is feeling. She has watched him get very sick from chemotherapy, which is something she never thought she would have to experience. What happens at home is something that is hard for outsiders to understand, because they may or may not be going through the same experience. The amount of worrying, having to watch her father be sick in front of her, and not being able to help, takes time to understand. Horner’s father is currently going through chemotherapy and radiation to treat his esophageal cancer.
Another student, Morgan Goddard, 17, lost her best friend to brain cancer. Goddard’s cousin Connor Bint passed away at age 15 after discovering the cancer at age 14. Goddard remembers when she was first heard the news, “I didn’t believe it[the news] at all. I kept denying it and saying it would go away. I think one day he called me and I was in the middle of walking up the stairs and he said ‘Morgan it’s really serious. I need brain surgery.’ I remember just sitting on the steps crying not knowing how to feel. It was just so much realization at once.”
After realizing how fragile the situation was, Goddard began to distract herself with worries. Bint’s cancer started to impact her school work greatly, “I missed school on days of his surgeries because I was so distracted I cried a lot! even though he hated it. My cousin having cancer affected my personal life the most though; my friends didn’t understand.”
Goddard believes that until you have gone through an experience with cancer you can not truly understand. “I get so sad when people say ‘I’m so sorry I know what you’re going through’ because every situation is different. Connor and I facetimed every night for 3 hours and having that go away is so hard and I think it [her cousin’s passing] changed me and opened my eyes, that this stuff happens because you see it in the news and don’t really think anything of it and then your cousin gets diagnosed and it’s like your whole world just flips and I think people don’t understand until they go through it but it’s something I don’t wish anyone should have to understand.”
Goddard’s friends never realized how sorrowful and sad she felt while she watched one of her closest family members get sicker and sicker. Goddard still looks for positivity every day in honor of her cousin, and she is able to find peace with her experience.
Former West Ottawa student Dustin Snyder, 27, experienced how much time and effort is put into taking care of a sick parent. Snyder’s mom, Dawn Solomon, was diagnosed in 2010 at age 40 with breast cancer. She had to have chemotherapy, radiation, and a mastectomy. Snyder’s mom would discuss details with him “She would describe each pill and what it did. She would talk about chemo and how many weeks of it. She tried getting out of radiation but the doctor said ‘no way, the cancer has spread too far.’ and yet she still needed to have surgery.” Snyder explained to me that the family doctor had found a lump on his mom’s breast during a regular physical. A week later, Snyder’s mom sat the family down to explain that the lump was cancerous. Snyder described the moment when he heard the news. He felt heartbroken because his mom is the one person who has always been there for him, and she could’ve died from cancer. His greatest fear during the treatment was that he would lose her. Snyder would get distracted at work and had to bring his mother to chemotherapy multiple times. Snyder claimed that the treatment changed his daily routines the most, “She was really weak and we needed her to rest so we[the family] would have to help her. We would make her a plate of food if she was hungry, get her drinks, and give her blankets. We also made sure the bathroom was clean cause she would throw up. I also had to help take care of my two younger sisters who couldn’t fully take care of themselves at home yet.”
Snyder still thinks about what he went through at home with his mother seven years later; when he’s having a tough time he thinks of his mom and how she felt during treatment. He says the experience has motivated him to carry out more, such as: buying a house, switching jobs, and ending toxic relationships. He made sure to give her a hug every morning before he left because he never knew what day would be her last day. Snyder is thankful that his mom lived through the experience, but he will never forget what he experienced at home. Snyder’s mom has been in remission since 2011 and still attends doctor appointments regularly.
The fear of losing a loved one is an unforgettable feeling. Having to take care of loved ones when they’re sick is not something people can always empathize with. Many students from West Ottawa have gone through taking care and living with a sick family member, and tend to keep their experience to themselves; they do not want to revisit the fear they felt or still feel. However, a majority of West Ottawa students do not understand the stress that comes with taking care of a sick family member. Cancer can change lives instantly, so make sure to appreciate and care for your loved ones.