Advice from Mother and Son on Facing Cancer Together

Hearing the words “you have cancer” can be hard enough, but what is it like to hear them echoed for a loved one? Having two cancer patients in one family calls for extra strength from everyone involved.

The Perry family
The Perry family

Karen Perry was undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer when she and her husband Brian learned that their son Owen, then 11, had leukemia. He was hospitalized for five months at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

“My knees buckled when I heard the news,” recalls Perry. “Learning Owen had cancer was harder than learning I had it.”

The Perrys offer the following advice to other families in their shoes.

  1. Unless your family is at risk for certain cancers, don’t try to figure out how or why cancer struck twice. Most of the time, it’s not because of the water you drink. It’s just an unlucky coincidence. Move forward with a plan for both patients.
  2. Try to keep things normal for others in the family. We tried to maintain a routine for Julia, who is 14. One of us was always home at night with her while Owen was in the hospital, and she continued seeing friends on weekends. She had the hardest part, watching her mother and brother deal with cancer and lose their hair. “We were the supporting cast,” says Brian. “Our job was to keep Mom and Owen healthy.”
  3. Accept help. The support we received from family, friends, and neighbors was invaluable. People were excited to help. A hot meal appeared at our door every night. Friends offered to transport our daughter Julia to her activities when we were at the hospital with Owen.
  4. Understand that everyone handles cancer differently. “I knew I could control my reaction to having cancer, but not Owen’s,” recalls Karen. “He would deal with it in his own way.”
  5. Find a silver lining. Owen having cancer took Karen’s mind off her own situation.  For Owen, cancer was familiar. He had seen his mom go through it and carry on with a normal life, and he knew that he could, too. “We were cheerleaders for each other,” says Karen.

Karen and Owen Perry participated in the 2014 WEEI/NESN Jimmy Fund Radiotelethon. Watch a short video or listen to their story.

If you are a parent with cancer, learn how to talk with your children about your situation. If your child has cancer, seek support from your cancer center or community. Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s understands that cancer affects the whole family, and offers many types of psychosocial support.