By Meg McElwain
When Mitchell first got sick, things happened really quickly. He was only 3 months old when we noticed bruising on his legs. That was a Sunday — the afternoon of his baptism. We went to the doctor the next morning who immediately recognized something was very wrong. He ordered a blood panel, and by noon Monday, we knew Mitchell had white blood cell cancer. By 5:30 p.m., Mitchell was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia with a 40 percent chance of survival. Chemotherapy would start the next day. There was no time to sit and think.
I am so thankful we were taken seriously and not told to “watch and wait.” Getting a blood panel immediately gave us the diagnosis we needed to start aggressively treating the cancer. That is likely why we had as much time with Mitchell—about two years-- as we did.
Here are some of the things I learned along the way.
Rest and meditate
It’s OK to want to get away from the noise and chaos surrounding your child’s illness and medical care. The beeping of hospital machines will be overwhelming. The stress that I experienced practically made my brain vibrate. It’s important to seek quiet and use counseling services to help you cope. Even in the darkest moments, you must feed your soul with positive thoughts, images and information. If you allow the negative to consume you, it will impede your ability to be resilient after this trauma is behind you.
‘It’s a marathon and not a sprint’
Our medical team used this phrase over and over. Now, I understand why. The treatment protocol is going to last a long time and it’s going to be stressful. Pace yourself. Give yourself permission to take healthy breaks and focus on self-care. You will survive this.
It’s OK to say no
Count yourself lucky if the people in your life want to help your family by providing meals, gifts or running errands. But, it’s OK to say no to an offer from someone who wants to help you if it adds stress or the offer does not feel right. Remember that when in a crisis such as this, it’s about you and your family’s survival, not other people. True friends will understand this.
You may lose friends
This is due in part to the maturity you will gain but also the stress and life lessons you will learn. You won’t relate as well any more to some people in your life. Saying no to offers for help may offend some people. That’s OK. Your support team has to be on board 100 percent and realize it’s not about them. You will be forced to make hard decisions, and you must focus on your family and not the world around you.
Supporting others who are grieving and are caregivers has been important to my recovery after my son’s death. This is a club that you can only understand once you have lived it. It’s a lonely club at times. I want to be a light for others so they can say, if she made it, then I can, too.
Meg McElwain lost her son, Mitchell, to leukemia when he was 2. Since his death in 2014, McElwain and her son, Frank Turner IV, have been open about their grief journey. Meg is a philanthropist at Mitchell’s Fund , the non-profit she founded to help families struggling to cover the living expenses during the crisis of a life-threatening pediatric illness. Mitchell's Fund operates under the Novant Health Foundation. The heart of Mitchell’s Fund is pediatric cancer, but the fund also supports pediatric behavioral health. Meg is a professional speaker and blogger on resilience. You can read her posts at megmcelwain.com. She believes her purpose is to help others recover after loss.