The Heaviest Burden

A few kind hearted and well-meaning people have asked me some variation of “What’s the worst part about having cancer?” since I was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer in May.
I do not doubt the sincerity of their curiosity and hearts.
Was it the exhaustion? The hair loss? The occasional metallic taste? Not being able to drive or drink adult drinks? My skin itching from the radiation treatments? The feeling like a walking pharmacy from all the pills I now take?
Yet the question was still strange.
First, because the answer is clearly right there in the question:
“What’s the worst part about having cancer?”
Having cancer is the worst part of having cancer.
Also, how does one quantify, or qualify, or weigh or measure the impact of such a thing? Especially someone who was extremely healthy before cancer leaped shockingly and unexplainably, into my life.
For the sake of my own mental health, I have tried (but admittedly failed a few times) to follow the sage advice from everyone from my doctors to my wife, our children, dear friends, family near and far, coworkers and even general acquaintances:
Do not dwell on how or why I got cancer. There is no answer. Sometimes crap – including cancer – just happens.
For a guy like me, the worst part is the weight of this burden on those around me. But even that is a hard measure since everyone, out of kindness and love, keeps telling me that there is no burden. They want to be part of my healing journey.
Then, like the cancer itself, a fairly accurate gauge suddenly and unexpectedly appeared.
My 4-year-old granddaughter, Riley Jean Williams.
Please understand this is not common parental or grand-parental pride speaking when I say, Riley is particularly astute, aware, and intuitive. I make my living around children and adolescents. What’s more, I have two sharp, successful young adult daughters. So, I know from whence I speak.
From the start of this adventure, Riley has asked questions.
First, it was about the humongous black eye (actually it was a beautiful shade of purple!) I had after surgery to remove a lemon-sized tumor and growth from my head “Papa, how is you eye?”
Then it was about the Frankenstein’s Monster-like scar on the side of my head. “Papa, how’s you boo-boo?”
Then, about my general health. “Papa, you feel better today?”
Recently, our daughter, Emma, warned us that she and her husband, Jake (two fantastic young parents) had been talking to Riley about my condition.
They were purposely avoiding certain words like “cancer,” “radiation,” and “chemo” so as to not scare or confuse her. They wanted us to all be on the same page since Riley spends a lot of time with my wife and me. Very smart.
Then, most recently, Riley asked me if the medicine I was taking was making my hair fall out. Emma said Riley was very concerned because she was also taking medicine for the effects of a minor bout of Covid.
I have to say: that one conversation broke my heart.
I quickly explained that Papa is taking a different kind of medicine, and she didn’t have to worry about her beautiful hair.
Then I handed the phone to my wife as tears welled and my throat tightened.
I admit, having been raised Catholic, I have a terrible case of Catholic Guilt. I feel horrible that I have put yet another potato on anyone’s plate – emotional, physical, financial, psychological.
My rational mind knows I did nothing to “cause” or “deserve” brain cancer. Still, my whole personal and professional life has been about easing the burdens in other people’s lives, not adding to them.
It’s one thing to know that adults are upset about the many ways cancer has (and may yet) change my life, and theirs by association. And to know you have somehow caused (or at least contributed to) the emotional burden of people you love and respect and care for.
But it is quite another to hear such thoughts from innocent children.
Still, the adults at least typically have enough Life under their belts to reasonably expect them to know what this all means.
I know this is a forced equation. So, I respectfully ask any mathematicians who may be reading this to go easy on me. Here goes:
Riley weighs 41 delightful, joy-filled, smiling, laughing, bossy pounds (“Papa, you come play hide and seek with me!”)
So, I guess we can say that her confusion, concern, and potential for grief may be 41 times worse than most anyone else beside my wonderful wife and equally amazing daughters. At least for now.
But I hope and plan to emerge victorious from these dark woods.  
Then, Riley’s joy may be proportionately 41 (or more) times greater.
To everyone who has held my hand, prayed for me, sent wonderful messages of love, gifts, etc. – and to my beautiful granddaughter, the center of my world – I promise to do everything I can to win.
After all, there’s a lot more hide-and-seek to play.

10 thoughts on “The Heaviest Burden

  1. Your words continue to help others with your transparent honesty and positive outlook. This is not a choice you made to give this example for Riley, but since it is here, you are giving her an example of courage, grace and the power of positive strength and love she will carry all her life and be stronger for it.


  2. You are a gift. A gift to your granddaughter, and others around you that you allow a window into your journey. Praying for you and grateful for you.


  3. My dear friend Tom, you and your family are in the Baxter’s hearts and prayers. God loves you and he’ll take care of you. Blessings and heartfelt prayers always.


  4. Tom,
    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. Stay strong and know that God will see you through this. So many people are cheering you on, including me.


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