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When your child has cancer: advice from a mom

Her daughter was 10 when she was diagnosed with leukemia — and Gwendolyn Webber-McLeod of Auburn began her education in parenting a child with cancer.

Gwendolyn Webber-McLeod (2019) Gwendolyn Webber-McLeod (2019)

Her daughter, Ashley McLeod, is 33 now, with a son of her own. She’s been cancer-free for 23 years, but the impact of pediatric cancer followed her into adulthood. As she grew from pediatric cancer patient to survivor, she experienced residual effects, such as learning disabilities, depression and anxiety — as do many survivors.

Today McLeod is a healthy, confident woman. Webber-McLeod remains a support to her daughter. She recently spoke at a HOPE (Helping Oncology Patients and Parents Engage) event, sponsored by Upstate’s Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders.

Webber-McLeod made these points:

Understand. A child who seems rebellious may be trying to regain some control when his/her life feels out of control.

Ashley McLeod (1997, when she was 12 and undergoing weekly chemotherapy) Ashley McLeod (1997, when she was 12 and undergoing weekly chemotherapy)

Support your spouse. It’s difficult for parents to stay strong during cancer, especially fathers. Encourage fathers to turn to other men for emotional support. Fathers often feel helpless because they can’t protect their children from cancer.

Tend your relationship. The disease and the caregiving responsibilities will strain a marriage. Remind yourselves “we are in this together.” Schedule date nights even if you don’t feel like it.

Focus on siblings. Cancer disrupts the childhood of all your children. Do what you can to make siblings feel important. Schedule special outings with the siblings who don’t have cancer. Encourage them to share feelings and concerns.

Embrace the "new normal." You may need to release the idea of what your family was before cancer, and learn to love, honor and respect what your family is now. There is still much to celebrate.

Ask for help. Look for relatives or friends who can talk to your child when she/he doesn’t want to talk with you. Engage nurses from the hospital who can connect with your child, too. You need a team of support to get through this.

Grieve. “Crying is the appropriate response to cancer,” Webber-McLeod says. “Give yourself permission to grieve, and grieve with an agenda. Be intentional about how you will bounce back. Our children need to believe we are OK and they will be too.”

Cancer Care magazine spring 2019 coverThis article appears in the spring 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.