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What Cancer Taught Me About Being a Dad

Sharing bad news is never easy, but it can be especially scary as a father

black and white image of father and daughter holding hands
Nancy Borowick

My phone rang. The caller ID was CANCER. Not really, but it should have been. It was my oncologist with the news: I had large B cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A 13-centimeter mass was growing at the base of my spine. 

Was I scared? Yes and no. Chemo? Bring it on. Radiation? I got this. Would the cancer spread? It would, eventually jumping to my brain. But no, the thing that really terrified me was telling my children. Sitting them down and announcing, “Dad’s got cancer.”

I was 53 years old with two daughters, both of them living away from home. Ava had started college in New Hampshire, and my older daughter, Sabrina, was working in Los Angeles. They weren’t exactly little kids anymore, sure, but the parental instinct to protect your kids never goes away.

So how, I wondered, should I break the news to them? Humor seemed like a safe approach. I decided to practice with my parents. “I have good news,” I told them. “I’m going to be a cancer survivor!” Yeah, that didn’t work. They just got very confused.

I never really had to tell my children bad news before my diagnosis. When our dog passed away, a beloved labradoodle named Kylie, we learned together as a family, from a phone call in the middle of the night from the animal hospital. When we made the decision to move from our home in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles to Syracuse, New York, my daughters learned about it from an email left open on the family computer. 

Maybe, I thought, I should wait and post a photo of my post-chemo bald head on Instagram. It wouldn’t soften the blow, but at least I wouldn’t have to witness their faces when they found out.

And that was the point: Steven Meyers, a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, says that parents often avoid these difficult talks to protect themselves as much as their children. “Sometimes the ability to help children understand and ultimately cope is a better way to view the price of immediate pain from a hard conversation,” he says.

As parents, we can’t make their emotional pain go away, but we can help them “understand and manage their feelings,” Meyers says. “[We] can provide accurate information and correct children's possible misunderstandings.”

Research backs this up. When it comes to getting bad news, nobody wants a lot of hemming and hawing and beating around the bush. Just give it to them straight. Kids, in particular, are well aware when they aren’t being told the whole truth, and studies have shown that if they suspect you’re keeping something from them, they’ll find the answers on their own.

My hand trembled as I made the first call. Being miles away, unable to look Sabrina and Ava in their eyes, unable to hug and comfort them, was as painful as the tumor pushing on my spine. 

“I have cancer,” I blurted out.

Sabrina’s response surprised me. Or maybe it didn’t. I called Ava next, and she had the same reaction. 

They both gave it about 30 seconds of holding back tears and then asked questions. “What happens next? What’s the plan?” We discussed how many rounds of chemo and radiation I needed, and if I was scared about what came next.  

“I love you, Daddy,” they both told me, and I was already on my road to recovery.

I had dreaded making those calls. I was scared they would break when I broke the news. But my children were stronger than I ever imagined, and they were way stronger than the cancer that came for me. In fact, their love and strength were therapeutic. 

“I’m not going anywhere,” I promised them. They believed me, and just as importantly, saying those words out loud helped me believe it as well.

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood