By Angie Anderson
When our fourteen-year-old son Micah was first diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of pediatric cancer, I didn’t fully grasp the grandiosity of it. Of course I was aware that a cancer diagnosis was never a good thing but since I knew of many adults who had survived other forms of cancer, I assumed it would be the same for Micah; that this would simply be a “bump in the road” for him, an obstacle that he would have to overcome. I’m not sure if I was in shock, denial or just ignorant when it came to my knowledge of cancer but I assumed he would have surgery to remove the tumor, be treated with chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination of the two, and that would be it. I naively believed that once his treatment was complete, he would be able to pick up his life where cancer had stepped in and move on, as if it had never happened. I never imagined it would be a death sentence for him.
Unfortunately though, just eight months after his initial symptoms began, my husband, our daughter and I found ourselves standing beside Micah’s hospital bed in the early morning hours, saying our final goodbyes as he took his last breath. Cancer had stolen Micah from us. We lost a son and a brother that day. At that moment, we were faced with the reality that cancer had taken someone precious to us but I don’t think any of us realized that this was just the beginning of a series of losses we would experience as a result of cancer invading our world and taking Micah’s life.
Of the many secondary losses that we would experience as a family, one of the first ones we encountered was the loss of our family structure as we knew it. Our family of four had suddenly been reduced to a family of three. Annika had gone from having a sibling for as long as she could remember to feeling like an only child. The first time we sat down to eat at our dining room table after his death, we struggled with what to do with Micah’s empty chair, as he usually sat between Peter and I with Annika on the other side of me. Do we leave his chair empty as a way of holding a space for him, or should one of us shift to that spot to bring us all closer together? Filling the empty chair wouldn’t fill the void that we were feeling but it would at least bring us physically closer. Who knew that sitting down for a family meal could bring such pain and heartache?
Cancer not only stole our son but any future plans he had for his life. When I think of Micah and Jane and so many other children whose lives were cut short by cancer, I can’t help but think of all of the life experiences that were stolen from them. They were robbed of the opportunity to do the typical things that should have been part of their futures; spending time with friends and family, participating in school activities like sports and music, dating, experiencing their first kiss, going to prom, graduating from high school, attending college, choosing a career, falling in love, getting married, and having children of their own. The list goes on and on. As we see our children’s friends reaching these milestones, it’s like we’re losing them all over again. Although we enjoy seeing their friends and classmates moving on with their lives, it’s difficult knowing that our children will never get to do those things.
Even those children who survive their cancer diagnosis don’t escape unscathed. Maybe it’s their sense of peace that is stolen from them as they are left worrying about if and when their cancer will return or if they will develop another complication later in life as a result of their cancer or treatment. Maybe it’s the loss of a portion of
their childhood, as they spend months or even years fighting cancer and undergoing treatment. They trade time that should be spent doing everyday childhood activities with hospital stays, chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Even though these treatments are crucial in eradicating the cancer, they are so toxic that they cause most children to lose their hair and feel sick the majority of the time throughout the treatment period. Not only does it oftentimes result in long term physical damage to their bodies, they carry the emotional scars with them as well.
Micah should be graduating from high school this spring and thinking about his future plans. Instead, we are left remembering the past, treasuring all of our memories with him and hoping that we never forgot all of the little things that made him who he was. In spite of the pain and overshadowing sorrow that we have experienced after his death, I would never trade the time that he was here with us in order to avoid that pain. As so eloquently stated by Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.” Although cancer has stolen so much from our families, it can’t steal the love that we have for our children, whether they are physically here with us or not, and it can’t steal our memories. Some things are eternal, including the love we have for our children.
Cancer has dramatically changed our lives and we will never be the same. However, in spite of all that it has taken from us, it has also brought us into community with others who have experienced similar loss, resulting in new friendships and an even greater network of support. No one understands what it’s like to lose a child better than another grieving parent. It was through Micah’s diagnosis and death that I was reconnected with Jil and for that, I am forever grateful.
The Princess Warrior Foundation was created because Jane had a dream to find a cure for cancer so that others wouldn't have to experience the pain and sadness that comes with a cancer diagnosis and because her mother, Jil, is honoring her wishes and working to make Jane’s dream a reality.Like Jane, I also dream of the day when there is a cure for childhood cancer so that no other child will have to face the uncertainty of what a cancer diagnosis means for their future and so no other family will have to worry about having their most precious treasure stolen from them.
Angie Anderson is the mother of two; her daughter Annika, who attends Wartburg College and her son Micah, who passed away at the age of 15 in August of 2018 less than a year after being diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. After the death of her son, she started her blog, Grieving Mama, as a way to share her son’s story while working through her grief, hoping to possibly help someone else in the process. Angie lives in New Ulm, MN with her husband, Peter, and their dog Milo, where she works as a Speech Language Pathologist in the public schools. Her blog can be found at https://grievingmama.home.blog/