Keeping Your Marriage Strong When Your Child Has Cancer

by St. Baldrick's Foundation
February 14, 2020

Jack Callahan has been through a ton in just four years on Earth. Six rounds of chemotherapy, then a major surgery, plus three rounds of chemo with three stem cell transplants. Radiation – he’s only part of the way through 33 treatments of that –and hearing loss and hair loss; he spent a total of 117 nights in the hospital in 2019.

For parents Emily and Michael, though, you’d think Valentine’s Day isn’t top of mind today – you may be right, but that doesn’t mean that the young couple isn’t staying connected through this new reality. Both working parents had to scale back their hours, and the family must shuttle back and forth between home in Charlottesville, Virginia and treatments at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Yet, on this Valentine’s Day, we thought we’d share Emily’s perspective: how do they all manage to juggle the stresses and emotional strain of a kid with cancer?

family smiling

Jack’s Journey Brings Family Challenges

It started in February 2019 with pain in Jack’s leg, and Michael took him to the orthopedist to see what the problem was. The diagnosis was a “germ cell tumor.” What followed was an upheaval of the family dynamic – in addition to the fact that Jack had to spend the better part of the year in the hospital, the entire family had to temporarily uproot.

If it sounds stressful, it certainly was, according to Emily. “We began treatment at University of Virginia Children’s Hospital last February. In June we learned that his cancer was refractory and while it had responded to the frontline treatment, we would need to pursue more aggressive options and temporarily relocate to Philadelphia. We were in Philly off and on in June and July and we have been here nonstop since August 17th.”

boy in hospital

“Mike and I have always both worked full time. We have both had careers we love and have shared a lot of the childcare and household duties evenly. We have approached Jack’s care the same way.”

Emily shares that, while they don’t know Jack’s long-term prognosis, he has responded well to additional treatments and that doctors are “cautiously optimistic.” He is almost finished with treatment and we are hoping to return home at the end of this month! If all goes to plan, this will be the end of Jack’s active treatment and we will do monthly blood counts and quarterly scans.”

Boy who is bald smiling

The Ties That Bind

Emily stresses that a strong relationship with one’s spouse is a must. “Don’t feel guilty taking time away from your child to connect with one another. Even if it is 5 or 10 minutes, it is so necessary. It’s so easy to get completely focused on the needs of your child that you ignore your own needs. You need to be able to communicate those things to your partner to make sure you have the support you need. While your child needs you, you also need support and so does your partner.”

Emily shares that she and Mike have “found it incredibly important to communicate and recognize what each of us needs to reduce stress. For me that is daily exercise. It always has been, and Mike knows that if I don’t get some physical activity in, I am jittery and irritable. For him, it’s going on a walk and having some time to read.”

Son on Mother's shoulders

Making Time When and Where You Can

For this couple, date night isn’t completely off the table. “We had to be really creative at times. Sometimes it was asking a nurse to sit with Jack for 15 minutes while we went to the family lounge to drink a cup of coffee together or eat dinner. Other times, when we had family around, it might be asking them to sit with Jack while we went on a walk or went to grab a drink. And, when neither of those were options, it might be sitting in the hospital together after Jack had gone to sleep talking, playing a game together, or having a dessert date.”

Emily sums up her experience this way: “The trauma and stress of this can be immense. But this experience can also be the thing that brings you the closest you have ever been as a couple and as a family.”

If you’re part of a relationship with a significant other, you know the importance of regular dates, and staying connected with each other however you can. With a child, that can be even tougher — and a child with cancer makes it all the more stressful. But the family does what it can to manage through the issues. So here’s a hearty Happy Valentine’s Day to the Callahan Family, and to all the St. Baldrick’s Foundation supporters, donors, and friends — together, let’s #DFYtheOdds.

Join us today and #DFYchildhoodCancers!


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