An Ode to My Parents: A Journey Through Childhood Cancer

I was a healthy, active child. I loved to swim and play cards and compete in just about anything. In fact, I joined multiple swim teams one summer, which is why I was so tired (or so we thought). I started taking naps that summer, which was uncharacteristic for me, and I often had an upset stomach. Although I was eating less and less, I was gaining weight. My parents even took me to the doctor’s office a few times, with no real diagnosis or direction from the pediatrician who was taking over for my doctor while she was on sabbatical. Then, after a weekend of camping, hiking, and biking, we finally saw my pediatrician. She felt my abdomen (which the previous pediatrician never did) and almost immediately sent me to the hospital for further tests. Thirty-six hours later I was having major abdominal surgery to remove a 6+ inch tumor which had ruptured and let off 10 liters of fluid. A few days later, the pathology results came back: I had a rare form of ovarian cancer. I was 13 years old.

What followed was a blur of hospital stays, chemotherapy, and discussions I never expected to have as a new teenager… if I wanted to have children someday, what could we do to save my fertility? Through it all, my parents never left my side. They were my constant support, strength, and advocates. This is why, over twenty years later and after having two kids of my own, I want to thank them.

Only now, as a parent myself, can I truly appreciate how extremely difficult it must have been for them. The only time I remember them crying in front of me was when the doctor came in to break the news to me. After that, they focused on “the plan.” This was the most perfect response they could have for an insanely task oriented person like me. I’ve always liked to plan things out, so that’s what we did. We planned what I would do for school, how we would compensate for my missing hair (Man! Wigs are ichy!), and when we would schedule chemotherapy. That focus worked so well for me that I never focused on the “what ifs?” that could have taken over my teenage brain.
My parents did everything they could to keep me focused on anything I could do. They got my homework from my teachers. They communicated with my swim team and organized when people could visit me in the hospital. They would drive to get me anything that sounded appetizing to my often nauseated stomach. They were with me morning and night. Even during my week-long hospital stays, my dad was there when I woke up in the morning, and my mom was there when I would go to bed.

My parents learned more doctor’s names, drug names, and hospital schedules than they ever wanted to know. They made sure that they were with me for every procedure, test, and appointment. When the doctor’s made a mistake (which they sometimes do), they were there to jump in and advocate for what I needed. One time, after chemotherapy was incorrectly administered, I had a very bad reaction with severe chills and distress. I slept for 16 hours straight. I later found out that my mom would sneak into my room and put a mirror by my mouth to make sure I was still breathing normally. The anxiety for a parent in this situation must have been enormous.

Sometimes it amazes me how they were able to juggle me, their jobs, and my sister with such grace and insight. I’m sure I was not the easiest child during this time (really, what 13 year old is easy), but they were amazing in their ability to plan for whatever I needed. They even made an appointment for me to meet with the assistant principal of the middle school to discuss my transition back to school and coordinated the discussion to let me break the rules by wearing hats because I was very self-conscious about my lack of hair. They even allowed me to adjust the announcement that went out in my school to say that I had abdominal cancer, because what middle school girl wants to talk about her ovaries?

I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for them, and I can’t imagine them doing anything better than what they did. People talk about kids with cancer being brave, but my parents were what made it all possible. We were blessed to have this be a short deviation from an otherwise normal childhood and adolescence, and I’m eternally grateful for all that they did for me during this time and always. Parents can make such a difference during stressful times, and my parents were so amazingly supportive. I have learned so much from them, and I can only hope that I can show that same level of support and selflessness that they displayed every day, in sickness and in health.

Jill is a born and raised Wisconsinite. She grew up just outside of Madison before heading to northern Michigan for college. Afterwards, she returned to Madison where she married her high school sweetheart, Micah, and earned her PhD in Educational Psychology. Micah and Jill live just outside of Madison with their two children, Levi (5 years old), and Alice (3 years old), and they all love sports and being outside. When Jill isn't enjoying the local Madison parks and activities with her family, she loves to play board games, and relax at home with family and friends. Jill is a busy mom, an active member in her church, and enjoys her job as an Associate Professor of Psychology for a small liberal arts college.

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