Written by Jaia Peterson Lent
Last February I was diagnosed with stage 4 rectal cancer. I am 38 years old. Cancer sucks. It also gives you gifts. Gifts I wish I could have received another way, but gifts for which I am thankful.
Even as I have worked for Generations United for 12 years, one of these gifts has been a new appreciation for the presence and perspective of the young and old in my life.
My son has spent his twos with a mommy going through treatment. He has handled it like a champ. From abruptly stopping nursing before he was ready, to spending nights away from mommy, to visiting her hooked up to a pole in the hospital, to being told mommy wants to but can't pick you up right now because her tummy hurts. He didn't like any of it, but he adjusted because he sensed that he had too.
"Mommy, you can't pick me up ‘cuz your tummy hurts? Oh. (pause) Can I see it?"
(He examines the incision from surgery. Pause) "Did the doctor zip you up?"
“Yes, kind of."
(Pause) "He won't unzip it?"
"No. It will get better and won't need a zipper anymore."
"Okay, can I go play with my dump truck?"
I loved how we dealt with the facts and then moved on. The next thing I would hear from him was giggles and excitement from the sheer joy of play. I often think I owe my survival to him, both because I need to survive for him and because his spirit makes me want to continue to have more years of joy.
When you are diagnosed with cancer in your 30's your peers are in shock. They are wonderful and supportive and concerned. But the older people in your life understand. It's an impossible experience to explain to people. Most older people have already experienced it in some way. They've been forced to understand. They've survived it themselves or they've cared for or lost a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend, or perhaps most devastating, a child.
I have a caring bridge site where I post updates online for friends and family about how I am doing. There is a guest book for people to leave comments. About 3/4ths of the comments are from older people. Many of them are my parents' friends. This is in large part a testament to how much my parents' enormous network of friends love them and me by extension.
It's also because older people have been there and have a profound need and skill at sharing love, prayers and insight. I am deeply grateful for them. From them we have received letters of support, monetary gifts to help with hospital co- pays, parking, housecleaning and babysitting, and simple hugs in church to remind my husband, son and me explicitly that we are loved. The gifts of the older people, many of whom only have known me peripherally, are unmatched.
To my peers, don't get me wrong, I could not make it without your support. I write this in hopes that you and others will find the opportunity to benefit from the gifts of young and old without the pain that comes from tragedy. But if tragedy comes, know that they are an ever present and perhaps unexpected essential part of our human safety net.
By way of an update, I am now in my last stages of treatment. The doctors can no longer see any cancer- Another gift. One to which I owe the young and old in my life much thanks.