This past week, my 10-year-old son was assigned a science experiment to conduct at home: exist for a full hour without electricity. During our family’s allotted hour, some things became incredibly difficult (imagine hand-washing dinner dishes in darkness). But the rest became wonderfully easy. With no way to do routine activities involving smartphones, TVs, computers, or other electronics, we just sat, talked and played board games by candlelight.
My son’s conclusion from this assignment? Without electricity, life is richer. He commented that he appreciated this opportunity to just be present and be together. “It’s different,” he explained. “In a weird way, electricity takes us away from each other. When you remove the electricity, you spend more time doing what’s important to you – what matters. You realize how lucky you are to have each other…and to have electricity the rest of the time.”
This was when my son’s simple assignment suddenly reminded me of what I see in and strive to teach our patients and families everyday.
Cancer in children, adolescents and young adults is extremely difficult. Patients and families must acclimate to multiple stressors including the real life-threat of the diagnosis and the medical complications of its treatment. Cancer schedules are inflexible; families must acclimate to the new demands of illness while somehow holding on to their values and identities.
But in our resilience work, we strive to help patients and families reframe their experiences, make meaning from the adversity and find new purpose. In so doing, they often identify similar views about what matters in life, how to seize the moment, and how to stop sweating the little things.
For example, a 15-year-old young woman with cancer told me early in her therapy: “My outtake on life will be different. I will embrace every moment. Pay attention to small details. Be happy I’m healthy. And not let little things bother me cause there are so many other things that matter.”
Another young adult, now a cancer survivor, explained: “I’m fueled by trying to show people what it’s actually like. In a lot of ways, it was really horrible, but it wasn’t overall bad. I’m like a better, happier person because [of cancer]. I think about stuff differently now. I want to make sure that whatever I’m doing is making me happy. I live with purpose.”
Parents have similar observations: “My child’s experience with cancer affects everything,” one parent explained. “From the overwhelming support to how we live. It’s debilitating on one hand, but freeing on the other. Everything is so rich. We take nothing for granted.”
Another parent said, “Emotionally, a lot has changed for me because of [my child’s] cancer. I am more compassionate. I don’t worry about practical things as much as I did before. Our family is closer. We are more forgiving. Dealing with cancer is so difficult that other challenges tend to pale in comparison.”
I have always been awed by this capacity to find meaning, even benefit, from cancer. I think it develops, in part, because cancer is so complicated that patients and families must learn to distill their values. Like removing electricity, serious illnesses force people to remove the complications in life and focus on the not-so-little things that matter, like what makes us happy, family, connection and purpose.
So, here is a thanks to my son’s science teacher, who taught me something this past week: Spend time with your family and loved ones, embrace moments of simplicity, and be grateful for luxuries like health, dishwashers and electricity.
Dr. Abby Rosenberg is the medical leader of Seattle Children’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program. She is also a researcher in Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Clinical and Translational Research.