- Advocates, Not Problem Parents
Nothing could have prepared us for the shock of hearing that our son had a brain tumor.
Rob* was 13½, an active, healthy eighth grader, when he developed a headache so bad he couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. We saw the pediatrician three times over the next ten days. On the third visit, after ruling out problems at home, stress at school, strep throat and mono, he sent us for an MRI. When the radiology tech handed me the films and told us to drive back to the pediatrician’s office, I knew we were in trouble. Sure enough, after all the other patients had left, our long–time doctor called us into his tiny office, shut the door and fumbled with the films as he pointed to a white spot that he said was a brain tumor.
So began the experience that would change the course of our lives. We remember the diagnosis in detail and relive it in slow motion. We recall packing suitcases, driving to the hospital, waiting to be seen in the emergency room, and walking through doors marked “Pediatric Hematology/Oncology” for the first time.
We date everything “BC” (Before Cancer) or “AD” (After Diagnosis). We are grateful every day that [End Page 13] our son is alive, but we know he is forever changed. We are changed: Our nuclear family, our extended family, everyone who knew us and supported us at the time was affected. A pediatric cancer diagnosis is a bomb that shatters your world without warning. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a lot of the pieces, maybe even most of them, but the world you re–enter is never the one you inhabited before.
Our doctor delivered the diagnosis to Rob and me at the same time. I’ve thought about this many times and perhaps one day will ask him: Why did he choose to do it that way? Was it a conscious decision or just happenstance? Was it kinder, in the long run—like pulling off a band–aid quickly—or terribly risky? What if I had collapsed at the news? I asked to step into the hall to use the phone. In a state of numbness, I called my husband. He knew we had had an MRI a few hours earlier. “Come quickly,” I said. “There’s a mass.”
We chose to go to a top-ranked major medical center and were admitted that evening. A couple of days later, the discovery of tumor markers in Rob’s cerebrospinal fluid and blood confirmed a central nervous system mixed germ cell tumor. We were told he would require six cycles of chemotherapy, followed by six weeks of radiation, and possibly second–look surgery and high-dose chemo with stem cell rescue on top of that. We were given a consent form listing a catalogue of short–and long–term side effects, among them the likelihood of infertility. We were urged to start treatment as soon as possible.
By sheer coincidence I had just completed a project for a small, nonprofit organization that existed to inform young adult cancer patients about their fertility rights and options. I knew that infertility concerns were usually pushed aside at diagnosis to make way for other priorities, namely the urgency of starting treatment. And that’s exactly the kind of pressure we were facing.
But my husband and I were not ready to sign away our son’s fertility in what felt like a no–confidence vote, a capitulation. We needed to believe that he would survive and put this horror behind him, that he would look forward to marriage and starting a family. We were willing to cede nothing to the disease at this early stage of the game. Was this rational, naive or selfish on our part? I don’t know.
The medical team seemed surprised when we asked for a delay in treatment in order to collect sperm samples. They warned that our son’s condition could decline suddenly—and that postponing treatment by even several days might be dangerous. However, at our insistence, they agreed to the delay...