How My Dad's Cancer Diagnosis Saved Our Relationship

By Erica Troiani 07/19/16

The news felt like a punch in the stomach, which was actually a surprise to me. My father and I had always had a fraught relationship, fueled by my resentment of his drinking, inconsistency, and frequent absence.

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Lies: Dad's Cancer Diagnosis Saved Our Relationship
When we fought, I used to wish he would just die. But I need him.

Dad came home drunk that night. I remember sitting at the kitchen table talking to him, and with every syllable he over-pronounced in order to hide his state, my insides crawled. But as much as I wanted to get up and run, for the first time ever, I could understand why he had had so much that night. He’d just been diagnosed with cancer.

My mom had told me earlier in the evening. Actually, she’d gone out of her way to avoid telling me, in that denying-unpleasant-emotions way that’s so prevalent in alcoholic families. But as a properly trained child of an alcoholic, I was sensitive to emotional disturbances in my midst. Mom was on the verge of crying, and the more I pressed her about it, the harder it was to keep dad’s secret. I knew he’d had a doctor’s appointment that morning, about a subtle swelling on the side of his face that only my mom had noticed and pestered him about. She insisted everything was fine, until I remembered the doctor’s visit that morning. Finally I just asked her, “Does he have cancer?” Her face contorted, and I knew. She didn’t need actual words.

He’d been diagnosed with stage-three non-Hodgkin follicular lymphoma. I didn’t know what any of those words meant at the time, just that mom repeated the doctor’s prognosis: it was treatable and had a 95 percent cure rate. But it also had a 100 percent fatality rate if left untreated. 

The news felt like a punch in the stomach, which was actually a surprise to me. My father and I had always had a fraught relationship, fueled by my resentment of his drinking, inconsistency, and frequent absence. We’d had plenty of knock-down nonsensical screaming matches where I’d felt adrift on a sea of topsy-turvy drunk man’s logic and criticism. Sometimes he’d be the perfect attentive father, but there were many other times when he picked on me with glee and others where he simply passive aggressively commented about something I’d done wrong until I took the bait and started a fight. And during those moments I’d often wait until his back was turned, flip him the bird, and silently wish that he would die. 

This bubbled up in my brain as I looked at him across the table that night, and I instantly felt guilty. I’d just finished college. I was 22 years old and three weeks short of moving to New York City, something I’d been looking forward to, in no small part because I would finally be free of him. But suddenly, I was terrified I would lose my father and that it might happen before we ever had a real relationship. I weakly insisted he would be fine because he’d be getting chemo, scary as that was. And that’s when he said it.

“I don’t think I’m gonna do chemo.” I’d never heard anything so ridiculous. I asked why, and he simply responded, “I just don’t see the point.” Again, this sounded absurd. He was in his 50s and nowhere close to the end of his life span, at least if he didn’t want to be, and his health insurance covered it in full. “I don’t know that anyone needs me,” he said. I protested like a dutiful daughter, but part of me wondered if all those years he’d actually heard my angry teenage thoughts. Had this conversation happened a couple years earlier, I might not have even argued with him. He said it again, and then he made a face I recognized so well but struggle to describe in words. He pursed his lips together and seemed to smile at the same time, in a way I can only describe as approximating human emotion. It was melodramatic. Martyring. I’d only seen him make that face under the influence.

I remember feeling angry and manipulated, like he wanted me to beg him to get chemo when it was so obviously the only solution. He wanted me to insist that mom and I needed him. It was the sort of behavior that normally would make me outright snap that he was looking for attention. And that would lead to one of those epic arguments. But given the circumstances, I held back. It might have been the first time I ever managed to do so. He insisted again that no one needed him.

I wish I could remember what thought exactly tipped my brain over into empathy. I would bottle it and give it away for free. But as much as I search my memory, I can’t recall how I made the leap. Maybe I asked myself how I felt when I just needed attention. Maybe I recognized that, though it was the wrong way to ask for love, he was asking for it nonetheless. I just remember looking at my father facing his mortality, and saw him as a complicated human being for the first time. That was followed by the sudden epiphany that whatever tortured him to drink the way he did had nothing to do with me. He was flawed, there was no denying that. But in that moment, I let go of my anger and forgave him. Cliché as it is, I was suddenly aware of just how precious time was.

Dad did get the chemo, and I still moved—at his urging, actually. And like many ACoAs would, I felt tremendous guilt about it. But in the last two weeks before I actually left, I spent as much time as possible with him. I saw him in a new light, and it seemed even he was feeling that greater clichéd appreciation of the life he had. He was more easygoing, and…kinder. Nicer. We stopped fighting completely and treated each other with more patience. 

We ate dinner together, just the two of us, the day I left. When my ride arrived, he helped me cram into the back seat of my friend’s car, next to the huge comforter she insisted on taking and her giant computer. He stood on the porch and waved to me as we pulled away, and I knew we would both be different the next time we saw each other.

In the nerve-wracking months of settling down in a new and terrifying city, I was grateful I had him to turn to for advice and support and stories of his own early-twenties failures. It was post-September-11th New York and there were almost no jobs to be found. I’d wait for the minutes to tick by until it was 9 o’clock, when I had free cell phone hours (y’know, back when people still used them as telephones) so I could call home and sob to my parents about how lonely, broke, and scared I was in the big, bad city. He assured me my misery was both normal and temporary. He started showing me empathy for maybe the first time and stopped either trying to fix things or telling me I was wrong. 

For the next half a year, I returned home once a month to help my dad after his chemo treatments, no small feat for someone with almost no savings. But I discovered a $50 round-trip Greyhound bus from Port Authority straight to my hometown. The only downside was that it left Manhattan at 3:45 a.m. So, once a month, I’d awaken in Brooklyn in the middle of the night and drag myself to the subway and eventually into the basement of Port Authority, where the bus terminals sat. I’d fall asleep within minutes of sitting down, and by morning, I’d be home.

The first time I returned, dad was awaiting me at my hometown’s rinky-dink bus station. I’d only been gone six weeks, and he’d only had one chemo treatment, but he already looked like a different person. He’d lost most of his hair and what remained had turned completely white. He was easily fifteen pounds thinner. But he wasn’t drinking, at least for the time being, and his illness allowed us to become closer than we’d been before, even as the physical distance between us increased. 

I thought I was calling and going home to check on my dad, but actually, those phone calls and visits got me through my first year truly on my own in a new and challenging city. For what felt like the first time, he was the father I’d wanted him to be, and he was wrong: I really did need him.

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