Childhood Cancer: An Honest Glimpse At One Mom’s Journey

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Cancer. Just reading that six-letter word causes one to pause. Imagine being the parent of the estimated 15,590 children and adolescents (0-19) who have heard or will hear that word from their child’s pediatrician in 2021.

Perhaps your child has just been diagnosed. Or, maybe she is currently undergoing treatment. Maybe you’re needing some ideas on how to help your best friend whose child has just been diagnosed with cancer.

My friend, Jill Johnson, graciously shared her own family’s pediatric cancer journey with me. Jill offers a perspective that is both honest and hopeful. Her interview responses were edited for clarity and brevity. For background and details about Nathan’s childhood cancer story, you can visit the Johnson Family’s Caring Bridge page.

Q: What went through your mind when the doctor told you that your 3-year-old son had cancer?

“It was kind of like an out-of-body experience. Like you can’t believe it’s happening. It was so surprising. I wasn’t even thinking that was going to be cancer. The diagnosis was Wilm’s tumor, a type of cancer that grows in the kidneys.”

Q: Are there ways that you changed as a parent or your family changed because of your experience with childhood cancer?

“Cancer is just a foreign land that you don’t even know existed until you’re dropped in the middle of it. New terminology, what you think about, what your concerns are – your whole world view changes in that new land. It makes other things not such a big deal. So parenting for me was staying positive and encouraging and just helping him on his journey. And just the gift of getting to be with him on that journey made us all stronger. It made us all more thankful for the little things.”

Q: What impact did Nathan’s cancer diagnosis have on your family, especially your two daughters?

“It was really hard on the girls because so much of their world changed. There were things we couldn’t do anymore; even just being around other people. We’ve always been a go-go-go and very involved. But that changed for them. Our main focus was being put toward his procedures and treatments or how he was feeling.”

Her older daughter remembers that time. At 21, she is now doing her own advocacy for childhood cancer awareness on social media. Jill’s younger daughter and Nathan have also embraced his cancer journey. They serve periodically as volunteers at the same Florida cancer family retreat center that their own family had previously attended post-treatment.

Q: How can mamas be supportive of a friend whose family is going through this journey?

“At the time, you don’t even know what you need. You don’t know what will help. What may help on one day might not help on another day. Even as a parent of a child with cancer, you can make dinner and you can clean the house. But it’s really nice if someone just says hey, ‘I’m going to come clean. When can I do it while you’re gone?’ Or, ‘when can I stop by and just drop off a meal at your porch?’ I mean don’t be super intrusive – but just to go ahead and do the things that you know will help someone.”

Q: What would you tell the mama who is hearing the words “your child has cancer” for the first time today?

“Just this: you’re going to get through it. No matter what happens, you do get through it. You’ll be stronger for it; sadly. I think people need to know that hard stuff is going to happen. But, you’ll get through it. And, hopefully, your kids will get through it too.”

“WITH SO MUCH INFORMATION OUT THERE, [IT CAN BE OVERWHELMING]. REMEMBER THAT THE ONLY STATISTIC THAT MATTERS IS YOUR CHILD’S.”

Q: Are there local resources that you thought were helpful?

Ally’s House was really really good. There was this one $1,000 medicine that he had to have and the insurance didn’t immediately approve it and they paid it. They gave us parking and cafeteria vouchers and more.”

Other local childhood cancer and general cancer organizations include the following:

Families Fighting Childhood Cancer 
Oklahoma Children’s Cancer Association 
The Toby Keith Foundation 

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