My Dad’s Cancer Diagnosis Changed Our Family

by Lisa Pahl, LCSW October 16, 2018

Everything happens for a reason.

I despise this phrase.

I don’t believe that when a child dies or thousands of people are killed by a tsunami that there’s some magical reason for it.

I do believe that significant growth can come out of difficult situations.

I was eighteen years old and a freshman in college when my father was diagnosed with Hairy Cell Leukemia, a rare cancer of the blood. My father developed symptoms of fatigue and low-level depression. The diagnosis wasn’t made until his platelets were so low that he required immediate hospitalization.

Needless to say, our family was taken aback by this diagnosis and my father’s hospitalization.

To provide some context, my parents were married at eighteen years old. They had my brother and I while still in their early twenties. My dad was a truck driver who worked sixty hours a week. That was before the twenty hours that he put in on our family farm.

As a child, I knew that my dad loved me, however, I also felt that his priority was working. A great deal of our family time was spent grinding feed, cleaning animal pens, picking corn, cutting firewood; farm stuff.

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t know how to respond. I remember I had a cold, which I used to keep my distance during his hospitalization. Eventually when I visited him, I brought along a mini- basketball hoop that hung on the door so we could shoot some hoops together. The look on his face when he saw me walk in the room has remained with me to this day. He was so thankful that I came. I could see in that moment how much he loved me.

Upon leaving the hospital, I saw a different man emerge. This man cried. He wrote in a journal every day. He became sentimental. He asked questions about my life. He continued to work sixty hours a week, but retired early. The farm animals were sold.

When my son was born almost ten years ago, my dad wept openly. He then proceeded to call me every night for three years to say, “Give the big guy a hug and kiss for me.” My son calls him Gramps and they have many adventures together.

Gramps is patient, playful, kind, and very affectionate. There’s no question my son knows just how much Gramps loves him.

My dad has had multiple rounds of treatment over the last twenty-four years. At this time, he is healthy. He runs four days a week and stays busy on their forty-acre property. But it’s likely he will require treatment again.

Because his cancer is slow growing, typically treatable, and has not impacted his day to day physical health, our family has considered his cancer diagnosis a bit of a blessing. While we will never know his path had he not received this diagnosis, I firmly believe that the father, grandfather, spouse that my dad is today is because he was confronted with his mortality. I look to him for guidance. He shows all of us how to live a life focused on those you love.

While it has not been an easy path, I am very grateful for the man he has become.

Lisa Pahl is the Co-Creator of The Death Deck, a lively party game with a focus on lightening up conversations around death.