Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Explaining Cancer and Side-Effects to Children

Almost everyone knows someone affected by cancer, but how do you explain cancer to children? How much should you tell them? What if the child is the patient?

If the child is old enough to ask intelligent questions he or she deserves intelligent answers.

Below is an excerpt from my children's book, "The Bald-Headed Princess"http://www.maribethditmars.com/

…"What the heck is cancer anyway?"
"Well, the doctor says it's when one cell goes haywire, 'abnormal'and starts making lots of other abnormal cells.  They crowd out the good cells, and they have to be killed off with strong medicine called chemotherapy…"

The child may know someone elderly who died of cancer, and become frightened. Be sure to explain that not all cancers are the same. Nowadays the survival rate for most childhood cancers is very high.

It lessons the child's anxiety when they know what to expect. Cancers with long protocols require minor surgery to insert a mediport, a catheter or tube that goes just under the skin and connects to a vein. When the nurses explained to my son, Chris, who was a leukemia patient, that the mediport would mean no more needle sticks he was happy to oblige. Knowing the purpose behind the surgery made it less frightening.

The side effects of chemotherapy vary greatly, depending  upon the diagnosis and the youngster's tolerance level, but most patients experience some nausea. Hair loss is also very common. It is important to explain this to the child ahead of time so he or she is not caught by surprise. Children are naturally curious and they appreciate understanding why.

Explain that since chemotherapy is designed to kill fast growing cancer cells, and hair and stomach cells grow fast, they are frequently affected. Fortunately there are great anti-nausea drugs to make your child feel better.

It is inevitable that a child will become upset when they find out they will most likely lose their hair for a while. This is a good time to reassure them that it always grows back when treatment is over. Some children enjoy wigs and colorful hats.

The chemo also kills cells that fight infection. Explain to your child that those cells are part of your immune system. A weakened immune system means that they may need to miss school and avoid crowds. Doctors will refer to 'blood counts'. They use blood work to 'count' how many germ fighting cells are in the bloodstream.

From the Bald-Headed Princess: " …The best thing about chemotherapy is that it does a good job killing cancer. The worst thing is that it also does a good job killing the cells inside you that fight off germsMom says that the chemo will make my blood counts continue to drop, and then they will slowly come back up again."

Kids are almost always resilient, and they quickly learn to adapt to life on treatment. Reassure them they will still have time to play and have friendships. Their activity level will be affected at times, and there will be periods of isolation when they are  immunosuppressed, but they will also have "up" periods in their chemo cycle when normal activities can be enjoyed. Always make the most of those times!

If the doctor gives the okay let your young patient be a kid! Most likely your child will have frequent lab tests so you will know when it is safe for them to be around others. Being overprotective won't heal them any faster, and it may cause them to despair.

The best people to explain life on treatment are other kids. When my Chris was first diagnosed the hospital staff had a teenager with a similar diagnosis explain to him what to expect. After Chris became an 'expert' he was called upon to help other new patients. He enjoyed doing it and made new friends in the process. If you have a newly diagnosed child ask your doctor to refer you to another family for advice and support.

Your child's oncologist can also refer you to many wonderful organizations for emotional, educational, and even financial support.

If your child is not the patient, but has a friend or family member battling cancer, understanding the treatment process may lesson their feelings of loss when their friend can't come out and play. This is a golden opportunity to teach compassion and altruism. Chris loved it when his friends came over and played video games by his bedside. Perhaps you and your child can schedule a special activity when the patients counts are up. 

What if someone your child loves is dying of cancer? What if your child is given a grim prognosis? No one wants to talk about this, but if you don't, you are missing the opportunity to teach your child the greatest lesson of all—that this life is temporary!

Proverbs 8:35: "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand…"

I once read an article in The New England Journal of Medicine that 75% of parents with terminally ill children do not discuss heaven or eternity with their children. I was both astounded and deeply saddened.

My beloved Chris did not survive his cancer, but he passed peacefully, unafraid, fully aware of where he was headed. The greatest gift that you can give a terminally ill patient is to share your faith.

A cancer diagnosis is devastating and it is normal to question God. If you are unsure reach out to your believing friends, a local church or hospital chaplain. Don't trudge this journey alone! 

1 Peter 5:10: "And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast."

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

When Friends Share the Journey

I love this definition: A good friend will bail you out of jail, but a great friend will be in the cell with you saying, "Wasn't that fun?"

True friends trudge the journey with you. One of these is my friend, Barb. We met in college where we became roommates. She was an anchor in my life, providing some sanity when I tended to party too much, and typing my term papers for me when my hunting and pecking kept me up all night.(Those were the days before computers.) One thing we did really well together was laugh. We adored bad puns.

Years later, when my ten-year old son, Chris, was diagnosed with leukemia Barb would walk one of my most difficult journeys with me. She did this by supplying me with emotional support as well an endless stream of jokes.

During Chris's lengthy hospital stays we often amused ourselves by picking on one particular nurse who shared our warped sense of humor. Nurse Nancy happened to be blonde so Chris made it his mission to introduce her to every blonde joke known to man. Chris would supply such pearls as, "Nancy, do you know how a blonde kills a fish? She drowns it!" Or, "Do you know why the blonde stared at the orange juice container for an hour? It said "concentrate". 

Barb, who is a natural blonde herself, researched blonde jokes for us and kept us supplied for each new hospital admission. Whenever Nurse Nancy was scheduled to administer a drug that required 15 minutes of close observation Barb always shared our joy. She would email us a long list so Chris could pepper Nancy with them for her entire bedside vigil.  Nancy would retaliate good-naturedly, and the result was the sound of laughter on a cancer ward.

Proverbs 17:22 "A joyful heart is good medicine..."

During Chris's four years of treatment Barb also became my email therapist. I poured my heart out to her as I sat for hours in Chris's hospital room. She was my electronic ear, when it was too challenging or stressful to share intimate details with family members. 

When Chris went to be with the Lord Barb was there. After the funeral, long after the parade of casseroles had ceased, when most of my other friends had returned to their busy lives, Barb was still there. Eventually, when I wrote my book "Christopher's Journey" http://www.maribethditmars.com/ Barb served as my editor, providing valuable feedback and dispelling my many random acts of comma.

Last year I lost my second son, Jarrod. Like Chris's loss, very few friends shared my walk through the fire. Admittedly, there are no words to say to a woman who has outlived her two young sons, but that's a far as most folks ever get.They don't realize that words aren't necessary, just a loving ear. Best friends are the best listeners.

Proverbs 17:17  "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity."

If you have a friend who is suffering, don't avoid them because you have nothing to say 
just be there. Don't be afraid to share a laugh or to just sit and listen. It is okay to say, "I don't know what to say."

Do you have a special gift or talent that you could share? After Jarrod's death my friend, Cathy, sent a crew of volunteers to mow and trim our yard. My wonderful friend, Lisa, lent me her technical expertise with my website and social media. " Don't pay me," Lisa said, "My tennis is rusty. I need you to play with me! And I enjoy your company." 

Romans 15:32 "So that by God's will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company."

Having a friends like Barb, Lisa, and Cathy has made me strive to become a better friend. 

Now my dear Barb suffers from early onset Alzheimer's. We can no longer reminisce or share corny jokes. It is an honor to dedicate this blog to her, and to let her family know that her friendship has enriched my life.

Someday when Barb is restored in the presence of the Lord he will surely smile upon one of the greatest benefits of creation—true friendship.

John 16:22 "So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Last week I was hiking in the beautiful Smokey Mountains with my faithful lab mix, Marley, trotting beside me.  We ascended into the clouds, and Marley scampered off into the trees, getting in touch with her inner wolf.

 I was having a grand time until I became hopelessly lost. After retracing my steps several times, adding unwanted miles, I finally had to admit defeat and call the ranger station. After the rangers arrived they spotted a tree that was supposed to have several trail markers. The one that I needed was missing.

My experience with alcohol also led me down an unmarked trail. At first the walkway was sunny and filled with laughter. We enjoyed days at the beach with a cooler full of beer, and fun times at football games.  There were humorous antics like the time I distracted the bartender while my friend climbed up on the bar and turned the clock back so happy hour could continue. Another time I found myself dancing on top of a park bench with a strange man who wore half of a soccer ball on his head.

 But it gradually became darker as I missed the trail signs. Like my recent hike, I was looking for signs that weren’t there. I knew that I was drinking too much, but I couldn’t possibly be an alcoholic. No one had issued me a trench coat and a crumpled brown bag. For heaven’s sake I used ice cubes!  My excuses had me retracing my steps, trying the same dead-end path over and over.
During the four years of my son, Chris's, cancer treatments I relied upon my best friend, Ethyl—Ethyl Alcohol. By the time Chris went to heaven Ethyl had become my higher power. 
 My family suffered. My grief festered. The arguments and hangovers were adding those unwanted miles to my journey.
I finally had to admit that I was completely lost. I turned to the Lord.
Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (ESV)

With the help of some twelve-step rangers I followed trail markers for a new way of life. The steps are designed to connect each person with God, but it is a gradual process. I had to be willing to hike the mileage. During the process I was gently loved back to health.

Matthew 11:29 ESV

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The secret to my success (I have over 12 years sober now) was admitting defeat and becoming willing to follow directions. (Just as I allowed the rangers to lead me down the mountain.) Not everyone in my position needs a twelve step program to be successful, and I am not saying that is the only way, but one beautiful aspect of it is that it emulates Christ’s fellowship with his disciples. Great teaching occurs in small, intimate groups.

Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (ESV)

Perhaps you are struggling with something that has you lost: childhood trauma, an unhappy marriage, work that takes you from your family—the list goes on. Are you following the wrong trial markers? Do you have the wrong higher power like I did? The bible calls them false idols. Maybe your false idol was fun for a while too.

Romans 7:19 (NIV) “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.”

But wait, there’s no “I Hate My Life Anonymous” group you say! Nonetheless, there are people willing to help. They might be at your church, at a counseling center, or sitting in the next cubical at work. Have you ever thought that you might be blessing them by allowing them to help you? One of my greatest joys was sharing my story with another alcoholic who had buried a child. Robert Ingersol said, “We rise by lifting others.” Your rangers are there, waiting for you to reach out.

Matthew 25:35 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
There is also a savior ready to help. He doesn’t care where you’ve been, only where you are headed. He hung out with big time sinners. I’m certain that he understood the mind of an alcoholic because he was known to turn water into wine!

He understands your lostness too. But Jesus is a gentleman; he doesn’t go where he isn’t invited. The rangers didn’t come until I asked.

Titus 3:3 “At one time we were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures…”

Surrender, find a community to hike with, and you can be transformed.

Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016


If anyone were designed not to run a marathon that would be me. With exercise asthma, bunions, and a dirth of natural running ability I was an unlikely candidate. What I lacked in talent, though, I made up for in persistence.

Hebrews 12:1-2: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…”

My marathon journey began in 1998. My 11 year old, Chris, was on treatment for leukemia and I had learned about charity running. I had already run many 5k’s, 10k’s and the occasional 15k, all with dazzling mediocrity. Despite this I was hooked on running. The endorphins, my increased energy, and the excellent fit of my size 8 jeans had all motivated me up until this point. But opportunity to use my running to make a difference in honor of my son raised my desire to a whole new level.

“Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.”
“You’re going to do what, where?” My husband, Rob, had gaped at me when I told him.

“I’m going to run a marathon in Ireland.” I had declared.

“You barely have time to clean the house.” Rob, thinking of my job and our 3 kids, was skeptical.

“Honey,” I had reasoned with him. “Do you think if I don’t run this marathon the house is going to be any cleaner?” So like any good husband, when faced with flawless female logic, Rob joined me and we trained together.

I went on to do 5 more distance events and we raised approximately $40,000 for cancer research. The fundraising gave us the opportunity to share our journey with others and to connect with other families struggling with cancer. We had also become part of the solution by contributing valuable research money.

One of the most important lessons I learned from marathoning was perseverance. The thought of propelling my middle-aged body forward for 26.2 miles was daunting, but when broken down into smaller training runs, each beginning with a single step, it was doable.

 Romans 5:3-4 “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope.”

I have learned to apply this lesson to other life ‘marathons’ such as an unpleasant work situation, a long wait hoping to get a piece of writing published, or a season of teenage angst with one of my children. These were all character building experiences.

Another valuable marathon lesson I learned was the relationship between pain and growth. As one trains the muscle fibers experience tiny tears. A day or two after a long training run often found me limping a bit. This was temporary, however, because my torn muscle fibers eventually repaired themselves and became stronger than ever. Each week, I would add one more mile onto my long run and my endurance steadily grew. In a few months I was logging 18 and 20 mile runs, something I would have never imagined in the beginning.

In my teaching career I learned to deal effectively with difficult students by logging those painful miles. By establishing a respectful relationship early, and praising their talents I went the distance with my troubled students. Just as I sometimes drove a long training course ahead of time, stashing water bottles in the bushes or noting bathroom locations, I prepared my problematic kids ahead of time what to expect on a field trip or a long test. Often, painful trial and error produced amazing results.

 I remember one student in particular. The previous year’s teacher warned me about “Alex". Yet, when allowed to work standing up at his desk, softly talking to himself "Alex" managed to achieve straight A's!I discovered that his temper was often quickly diffused through humor or an appeal to his intelligence. “Alex, you can’t get in trouble, you’re my multiplication champ and I need you to judge the flash card game this afternoon!” He eventually became a class leader and a brilliant math student, finding ways to solve problems that neither I nor my teacher’s manual had thought of.  “Alex” still had his days when I sought administrative assistance, but his progress from September to June was nothing short of a marathon!

Isn’t that how God guides us along our sometimes painful course as well? He stays with us even when we require his administrative assistance.

The final lesson I learned form marathoning was hope. As long as I kept putting one foot in front of the other I knew that the finish line was eventually waiting for me.

 Titus 3:7 “so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

When my fourteen year old Chris was on his deathbed he said, “Mom, don’t worry. I’m going to be fine. Jesus is going to call me and I’m gonna go.” Chris had attained a peace that surpassed all understanding. God had given him the hope of eternity.  Chris was ready to raise his arms and cross that finish line.

2 Timothy 4:7“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith”

With God’s grace I will try to keep running the good race, for my earthly marathon isn’t over yet.