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Conversation 2008

HARPHAM, WENDY S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000335299.12834.a2
View from the Other Side of the Stethoscope
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Becky: “So, you want to know what it was like for us? I was a kindergartner when my mom got cancer. To be honest, much of the first few years of her illness are a blur. I just remember feeling really scared and hating everything having to do with cancer, doctors and hospitals.”

Jessie: “I was only three years old, so I wasn't scared like Becky. I didn't know to be.”

Will: “Since I was a baby when it all started, for me Mom has always had cancer. All I know is that the sicker Mom got, the grumpier Dad got, and I felt helpless to do anything to make it better. Like Jessie, I didn't feel scared. Well, not until I was in 11th grade and her cancer came back again. My sisters were off at college, calling me at all hours for updates and reassurance. While dealing with high-school drama and stressing out about college, I was also worrying about my mom.”

Becky: “What helped me most? That's simple: My parents always told me the truth. Sure, I still worried about her…her dying. But I never worried about what might be going on that they weren't telling us (or that they were lying). For instance, Mom and I were shopping one day and saw a lady wearing a scarf. We both could tell she was bald. I said, ‘Mom, you are never gonna need scarves again, right?’ My mom answered, ‘I hope not, but if I do, I'll wear pretty scarves like that lady.’ Part of me was furious that she refused to say what I wanted to hear—‘We're done with cancer.’ But I was glad she was truthful.”

Jessie: “Me, too. I'd always rather know the truth.”

Will: “The truth helped us in good times, too. Once I overheard her on the phone say something about scans. After she hung up, I asked, ‘Everything all right?’ She said, ‘Yes, I'm fine. A neighbor's dad has cancer.’ That was all I needed; I didn't worry another second.”

Becky: “Not another second, Will? I don't think so.”

Will: “No, I meant I didn't worry anymore about that phone call.”

Becky: “It also helped that each time her cancer came back, my mom and dad made a big deal about how she was getting ‘the best’ possible treatments. That she had ‘the best’ possible chance.”

Jessie: “And how they had lots of hope.”

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Will: “They also told us how they'd help us. I can still hear them saying, ‘We got through it before. We can get through it again.’”

Jessie: “Our mom did things to make cancer fun, too.”

Becky: “Oh, please. Cancer is never fun. Name one fun thing.”

Jessie: “Our chemo-days box.”

Becky: “Oh yeah! I forgot about that: the shoe box filled with activity books and Polly Pocket toys. We could open it only on her chemo days.”

Will: “And do you remember how Mom brought home the plastic mask they used at the hospital when she had radiation therapy? We played “radiation,” using the TV remote as the control switch to zap each other.”

Jessie: “Don't forget ‘Mommy-and-me’ days. We each got a day with mom all by ourselves. I think she did it because she felt guilty…”

Becky: “Listen, no matter what they did to try to make it fun or make up for it, home basically sucked when Mom had recurrences and needed treatment. I feel bad about it now, but I spent as much time as I could at my friends' houses. And looking back, I know I said and did stupid things that just added to the stress at home.”

Will: “You know what, Becky? They yelled at us sometimes even when we didn't deserve it.”

Becky: “Yeah, sometimes. Actually, we didn't deserve any of it: the bald and tired mom, the cancelled birthday parties and summer vacations, the separations when mom was treated in California. Now, of course, I know it wasn't anybody's fault.”

Jessie: “Mom and Dad told us over and over again that it wasn't our fault.”

Becky: “I guess when I was little I knew it in my head but didn't believe it in my heart. If you had given me a quiz, I'd have gotten the right answer: ‘It is not my fault Mom got sick (or had to go to the hospital again, or whatever).’ But for years, I still kept thinking, ‘It has to be somebody's fault.’ On the bad days, I did worry that, maybe, it was because of something I was doing wrong.”

Jessie: “One thing that helped me was hearing how great Mom's doctors and nurses were.”

Becky: “Me too. That was something I could believe, especially after we went to see Mom get radiation. The nurses at the hospital treated us special, lifting each of us up to see our mom through the little glass window. You know, if I could tell doctors and nurses only one thing, it would be, ‘Do your best’. That is our ‘Mom’ or ‘Dad’ sitting on your exam table.”

Will: “I think you should tell your patients about the cool groups, books, and Web sites for kids whose mom or dad has cancer. Because by helping our parents, you help us kids.”

Jessie: “Here's my two cents: Please ask about us.”

Becky: “And don't just ask, ‘How are your kids?’ ‘Cause they'll say fine.’ You need to ask, ‘How are you helping your kids?’ That sends the message that cancer is hard on the kids, too.”

Jessie: “I second that.”

Will: “I third it.”

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Now in Paperback: Dr. Wendy Harpham's The Hope Tree

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Dr. Wendy Harpham teamed up with children's author Laura Numeroff to create a book for young children whose mothers have cancer.

Based on real stories and supported with illustrations by David McPhail, the book focuses on 10 key topics that often affect families dealing with any type of cancer (or any illness). A group of children who are depicted as adorable animals share stories, philosophies, and advice that touch the heart of any child dealing with the changes and stresses of family illness.

In 1999 when the hardcover edition was published, Dr. Harpham and her daughter Becky appeared on the The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about the book. Now, a paperback edition has been published by Susan G. Komen for the Cure, available through the organization's Promise Shop at www.komen.org. All authors' proceeds are being donated to Komen for the Cure.

© 2008 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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