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Imagine yourself on the trip of a lifetime. You’ve taken to the high seas with an optimistic spirit, seafaring experience, and proper equipment. The boat underneath is a worthy vessel and the heading is secure. While the ocean is powerful and at times unpredictable, as captain, you carry with you the confidence to see the journey to its end.

But suddenly, dark clouds appear on the horizon and bring with them rising swells. Massive waves crash over the bow, one after another, as the violent storm turns the ocean from tranquil to cruel. Guided only by experience and bravado, you hold on until the storm around you subsides. When it is finally gone, a quick survey reveals massive damage to the ship – a broken mast and shattered rudder, leaving you adrift in the vast ocean you formerly thought was a friend.

How do you steer a rudderless ship?

While this story may sound fantastic, it is a picture lived out in families around the country. Our captain is the father whose comfortable ship has been rocked by the words, “your child has cancer.” That storm comes in suddenly and leaves devastation in its wake and the captain is left to try to steer his broken ship through uncharted waters. It is an impossible voyage.

Of course, all families and situations are different. But in a typical scenario, mom is consumed with the child’s treatment and the father must carry out his normal duties along with new chores she cannot manage – all while dealing with a huge rush of emotions the likes of which he has never experienced. Consider the balls a dad in treatment is forced to juggle:

Work – Of course he had to work before, but the stress of watching your child endure cancer treatment can weaken the best of employees. Concentration is nearly impossible when the mind is constantly drawn back to his sick child. Regardless of how he feels about his job, he has to persevere because insurance is a critical need during this medical storm.

Siblings – Dad must now make sure the other children don’t feel neglected.

  • With mom occupied, he becomes the taxi driver for activities. If he never respected his wife’s ability to keep a schedule, he will never doubt it again after a few weeks of t-ball, piano, and ballet.
  • He must brush up on algebra and sentence diagrams because the homework mantle has been passed.
  • Food – kids eat a ton of it and often. Perhaps friends are bringing dinner, but lunchboxes must be packed so food must be bought and prepared.

Housework – Whatever the division of duties before cancer, dad’s role will probably increase with mom away. Some cancers mandate a near sterile environment to prevent infection when the patient is at home so the job of cleaning becomes even more of a challenge.

Finances – Family life is expensive on its own. Huge medical and related expenses can easily destroy any comfortable safety net.

Marriage – Maintaining a healthy marriage is difficult in the best of circumstances. Add the pressure of separation, financial strain, stress, lack of intimacy, and fear for the health of your child and you have a recipe for marital disaster.

PatientA father is left questioning how best to support and encourage his sick child. Maybe he was that funny dad before, but there is little to laugh about during treatment. Whatever role he played, cancer will force him to modify it in some way.

With all of these in the air, some balls must hit the floor. The balls that often slip are friendships, fitness, hobbies, and activities because there simply isn’t room for them. If these are important, guilt over their neglect can creep into the dad’s mind.

And here is the strangest part – amidst the uncertainty of this storm, our once-confident captain will experience waves of emotion he has likely suppressed or managed all of his adult life. Tears previously unfamiliar to him will become his constant companion. Unmanageable fear and dread can hit at any time because the cancer has taken away that once-certain path and threatens one of his crew – a crew member entrusted to him… the dad… the man. The startling feeling of spinning completely out of control can rock the strongest of men.

I speak from experience as I have been in that boat. When my daughter was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, I thought I could safely steer my ship. Cancer was the wind that tossed my little rudderless ship at its whim and every time I confidently charted a course through the storm, cancer blew my plans aside. Losing control of your life and family is incredibly hard for a man – it was hard for me. It ran counter-intuitive to everything I grew up believing my role as the father of a family should be. Also foreign was the number of tears I cried. Right or wrong, I felt like less of a man.

On this Father’s Day, if you know someone who is trying to lead his family through childhood cancer or another family storm, understand that he isn’t as strong as he might appear. He is likely feeling much like I did – out of control and like less of a man. As much as you would want to, you cannot take the wheel and steer for a while – that job is his alone. But you can listen, give him a hug, volunteer for the extra work project, mow his lawn, or take his other kids to a ballgame. By easing those burdens, maybe you can help him regain some measure of control as he rides out the wind and choppy seas.