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six lessons in fatherhood from a journey with childhood cancer.

by Larry Vincent

When I was a very young man, I made up my mind never to have children. I didn’t think I would be a very good father and my own father was absent for most of my life, so the notion of being a dad was informed by angst and ignorance.

Cut to me at age 27, gleefully welcoming my first child Lucas into the world. Two years later, my daughter Jordan joined us. Today, I am grateful for the blessing of my children. They are both young adults now, and I couldn’t be more proud of them, especially given my daughter’s long journey with brain cancer. Jordan has been fighting for more than 13 years. That forged an uncertain childhood for both my kids and for my family. In retrospect, I learned a lot about being a dad through the unique lens of our experience. The following are some of the lessons I value the most.

1. Laugh
As odd as it may sound, I believe laughter kept our family strong. It’s very hard to find humor when your child is sick, but the axiom of laughter being the best medicine is very true. 

While I was thinking about this article, I went back and looked through the 13 years of entries I have written on our blog, many of them relay moments in time that were truly funny. I was smiling re-reading them.

While I can’t say that my dad was my role model, there were others dads I admired growing up. The ones that shaped my perception on how to behave were the ones who didn’t take life too seriously—the ones who liked a good prank and knew how to have fun in ample proportion to their need to exact discipline. I think many parents who share this philosophy lose sight of it when their child gets sick.

2. Advocate
I suspect this is less about being a dad, and more about being the parent of a child fighting cancer. You have to be your child’s advocate. It’s rough because that sometimes means asking tough questions of doctors and nurses in an overworked healthcare system. This is a job that is often shared between parents. And there are plenty of moms out there who take on this role alone. 

I’m from the midwest, so it’s in my blood to be nice. But there were times when being a dad to a child with cancer meant being a pest and sometimes being demanding. I had to make decisions I wish I never had to make, but it was my job because it was best for my daughter. Fortunately, we were blessed with wonderful healthcare partners who encouraged me to keep on advocating.

3. Find an Outlet
You can’t do it alone, and you can’t do it constantly. What is “it?” It is being in the battle for your child’s life and journey to wellness. Sadly, most of us share a perception that dads have to be strong and stoic and tireless. The truth is that this journey will make you feel weak and emotional and exhausted. You have to hit pause now and then. You must find a channel to release all the anger and anxiety and fear. For me, it was writing. For others, it is exercise, video games, time with friends, travel, etc. To be the best dad to your child on this journey, you have to discover your own outlet.

4. Coach
Sometimes, I think I have served my family best by being the family coach. That means being a cheerleader when the rest of the gang is feeling down. It means reminding your cancer fighter of their strengths and accomplishments so that they stay in the game with all the energy they can muster. Sometimes, it’s getting people prepared for a tough road ahead. And sometimes, it means focusing on a family member who is not the one fighting cancer fighter.

My wife missed her calling. She should have been a doctor or a nurse. She has an amazing bedside manner and Wonder Woman strength. As dad-coach, my job is often to celebrate everything she does. To use a baseball analogy, if Jordan is our star slugger, then my wife, Jeanette, is certainly our pitching ace. She can go for innings and innings, but she often needs a coach who can visit the mound and help her shake off a jam. 

5. Grieve
Your child has lost their health, at least for now. That’s a terrible, awful feeling. We dads handle it in different ways, but too often we suppress that overwhelming feeling of loss. You have to grieve.

Shortly after Jordan was diagnosed, I started writing our blog. It was originally intended to keep family updated on her progress because it was too much to call and email everyone with updates. After a while, the blog became my place to grieve. I let the dark feelings pour out and then published them to whoever wanted to read. And people did start reading. People I’d never met. I will never forget a comment that was sent to me privately after one particularly sad post. It was a comment from another cancer-fighting dad. He advised me to cry. His follow-up comment was haunting and insightful. “That’s what showers were made for.” Whether you cry in the shower or sob in your living room, don’t be afraid to deal with your grief. There’s no shame in it.

6. Let Go
Finally, as the dad of a cancer fighter, you need to learn how to let go. As fathers, we often want to have a plan. We’re Clark W. Griswold with a master strategy for getting the family to Wally World. But cancer is not so easily navigated and things will happen you can never predict. Your mind wants to skip ahead to risks and probabilities, but they are not what your family needs. Your family needs you now, in the present, making the most of this very day because the days ahead are not promised.

As a writer and a business strategist, this lesson was hard for me to learn. I wanted to control so much. That, I thought, was what it meant to be a dad—to lead the family through command and control. Boy, was I wrong. I hope I have been a good father to my children and a good partner for my wife. If I have, it is because I learned long ago that I could be my best for them by enabling the moment—by loving unconditionally and embracing the love we enjoy every day we have together.

Larry Vincent is a writer and marketing executive who lives in Los Angeles. His daughter Jordan has been a “cancer slayer” since 2004. She is also a proud ALSF Hero Ambassador. Follow Jordan's story here.