Writing letters to strangers helped me manage my fears about my dad’s esophageal cancer treatment

It was December 2018 when my family knew something was seriously wrong with my dad. An otherwise healthy 54-year-old man and avid tennis player was sitting in front of us, barely touching his dinner.

The holiday season came and went, but his struggle to keep food down did not. Only a few weeks later, I received that unimaginable phone call: my dad had been diagnosed with stage III esophageal cancer.

What led us to MD Anderson for esophageal cancer treatment

It’s difficult to describe how it feels when a loved one has cancer. There’s an ever-present heaviness that makes it hard to breathe. I desperately longed for the world we’d inhabited before my dad’s diagnosis — a reality that was starting to feel eerily distant.

Dad’s local physicians told him that the size and location of his tumor meant he’d need more specialized care than they could provide. And after doing a little research, it became clear to all of us that MD Anderson was the best choice.

Once my dad decided to seek treatment there, things started moving quickly. Within 48 hours, my parents were packing their bags in preparation for a flight from Atlanta to Houston.

Taking action to manage my fears about esophageal cancer

It was during this time that I sat down with some notebook paper and started writing letters. I wrote to the medical oncology team, the radiation oncology team and the surgery team that would be assigned to my father.

I wanted my dad’s caregivers to have a glimpse of who he was and how much he meant to our family. I also hoped there would be people — unknown to us at that time — who would have a significant impact on his journey. I wrote letters to the people my parents would meet along the way, and to those who would help them.

What I said in the letters

To some recipients, I gave conversation starters on my dad’s favorite topics. I knew my dad would be uncomfortable and probably afraid during scans and procedures, but talking about Kansas basketball or Billy Joel’s music might help calm his nerves.

To others, I thanked them for things they hadn’t done yet. Those letters were probably the hardest to write. But it was helpful to imagine the things I was thanking people for eventually becoming a reality. And I knew that when the recipients read my letters, they’d realize just how much they’d meant to my parents.

As soon as I finished writing the letters, I felt a wave of comfort wash over me. I wouldn’t be able to be with my dad at every appointment, but a piece of me would go with him and get to all the people who were going to change his life. I could stay close to him in that way.

How my father is doing today

Five months later, my parents had given out all of my letters. Some were handed out during tough times; others were shared on days filled with hope. My dad delivered the last one at the airport on his way home, and it was an emotional experience for him, my mom and that special person.

Today, my father continues to recover. But he is doing well and shows no signs of cancer. He had his feeding tube removed last month and returned to the tennis court for the first time since his surgery. Both of those were big moments.

My final open letter

I cannot even begin to count all the people who have come into our lives and supported our family as my dad went through this. So, here is my final, open letter:

To all of the doctors and staff at MD Anderson: thank you. Our family is forever indebted to you for saving my father’s life.

To my dad: I love you. You have faced cancer and fought it every day with unwavering strength.

Lastly, to anyone who needs encouragement: Even on your toughest, darkest days, remember there will be a time when you can breathe again. My dad is proof.

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