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Helping Kids Cope In Parent's Illness

By Aleta Payne
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 9, 2004; Page C10

Sydney Wolford wasn't yet 3 years old when her mother began chemotherapy for breast cancer.

Reading to her daughter in bed each night, Jill Wolford, 35, would leave a trail of hair on the pillow, which Sydney would collect and try to stick back on her mom's head.

The Wolfords -- Dylan, Eric, Sydney and Jill -- kept to routine during Jill's chemotherapy. (Karen Tam For The Washington Post)

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Then, during one bedtime story, Sydney said something that left her mother smiling and tearful: "Mommy, one day when I grow up, I want my hair to fall out just like yours."

Five years later, doctors consider the Cary, N.C., woman free of cancer. Sydney, now 8, and her brother, Dylan, 6, have few memories of their mother's illness or her treatment, which included a period of isolation for a stem-cell transplant. And that, experts say, may be the surest sign of the family's recovery.

For children, living through the ordeal of a seriously ill parent can be a life-altering experience. But, if the situation is handled well, the children can still emerge with some sense of security and well-being.

"Even very young children take in information," says John Fairbank, co-director of the UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. "One of the first things you really need to think about when a family is facing life-threatening illness or traumatic injury to a parent, you need to remember the kids are there."

Children will react to cues from adults and will model how the adults are coping, Fairbank says. Explaining the situation in a realistic but age-appropriate way and reassuring children that their emotions are okay will help convey a sense of safety and control.

For Jill and Eric Wolford, life never seemed less safe and controlled than after Jill's diagnosis.

They married 14 years ago in Charlotte, N.C., moving north two years later to the state's Research Triangle Park area, where both work in clinical research for the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. They were leading a suburban life until Dylan, then 10 months old, refused to nurse from Jill's right breast. Jill saw two doctors and consulted others before a mammogram and ultrasound were ordered. A needle biopsy confirmed that she had a cancerous tumor. It had to be reduced with chemotherapy before the doctors could perform a mastectomy.

The couple knew their children needed routine. Eric took on additional responsibilities for Sydney and Dylan, particularly during the time Jill was in isolation. Family members, neighbors and colleagues also helped, but it was important to Jill that a parent be with the kids as much as possible.

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