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Helping children find themselves after cancer

By: Kris Clinese

Having my teenage daughter diagnosed with cancer and go through almost a year of treatment was one of the most difficult experiences I could have ever imagined. My beautiful daughter, Kayla, was a healthy, energetic, athletic, outgoing, intelligent, normal 16-year-old girl. She was finding herself and growing into a young woman. She was very much into her appearance and took time to think about what outfit looked best or how to do her hair or what makeup accented her features. It was fun to see her discovering herself and becoming her own unique individual.

Then, life as she knew it stopped abruptly, as did her transformation from teenager to young woman. She started chemo and her hair started falling out. She shaved her head. She chose to wear a wig to keep some resemblance of her former self. As a parent it was very hard to watch, but she was still my beautiful daughter no matter what she was going through or what she looked like. I saw her through the eyes of a mother, beautiful and amazing and strong. She saw herself as “the girl with cancer,” “the girl who wears a wig,” “the girl who has to draw on her eyebrows” because she didn’t have them anymore. Her clothes did not fit her anymore because of weight loss, so she wore oversized sweats. She lost herself and didn’t know who she was any longer. She felt she was just the “girl who has cancer.” But, to me, she was beautiful, and no matter how much I tried to tell her that, she did not feel that way … at all.

It was a very long road for her dealing with the psychological aspects of having cancer and how it affects mood, appearance and overall well-being during and after treatment. As a parent, I can’t tell you how hard that is to watch, and you just pray for the day treatment is done and your child can be her/his “normal” self again, at least what you remember them being prior to treatment.

Once Kayla finished treatment, I couldn’t wait to have my daughter back to her old self, the normal, happy, energetic, smart girl I knew before all of this happened. I thought that now this was done her life can resume like she didn’t skip a beat. I had no idea what was about to unfold.

As her hair started to grow back her wig did not fit properly. She cried. She hated the way her hair looked. She was gaining weight back and her clothes did not fit. She struggled getting back into the routine of daily activities. She felt sad and not pretty. She had no idea who she was. She was no longer “the girl with cancer,” and she was no longer her old self prior to having cancer. She was in a dark place and needed to figure out who she is now. Of course, she went to a therapist to help with this. I did also. I needed to learn how to help her. It was not the easy transition that I thought it would be. I had to learn to understand that, as beautiful as I saw her, she did not see herself that way. No matter what I said, it did not help. She needed time. She needed support. She needed to be angry and upset in order to heal and find herself again.

She went on shopping sprees and spent money like it was water. New shoes, new clothes, new makeup. I got angry and upset with her. I spent money buying her things. Some she would not wear or only wear once. One day she liked one outfit, the next day she was in tears because she had no clothes to wear that she felt comfortable in. I spent money on haircuts, color, highlights, etc. I was upset that she was still not happy. I didn’t understand. I felt I was spoiling her and giving her everything she asked for, and it wasn’t enough for her. I was frustrated. I thought she was beautiful inside and out. She did not. I just had to be there to keep loving her and supporting her.

Finally, after she went away to college, over a year after treatment finished, I started to see a difference. She met new friends. She was in a new environment. She was happy. No one knew her as “the girl who had cancer.” They knew her as Kayla. The new, redefined Kayla. She left all of what she went through behind her when she went away to college. She had a fresh start in a new environment. It wasn’t easy, but she was able to find herself, redefine herself and become the beautiful young woman I always saw. Now she saw her, too. And that is the best feeling a parent can have, to see your child recovered, happy, a new person, living the life they were meant to live. It is a frustrating process to get there, and it requires much patience, understanding, support, therapy, tears, etc., but it is all worth it to see the outcome, and see your child happy and living life again, as the new person they have become.

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