Family Finds Support and Information They Need in Cancer Crisis

by Kathleen LaCamera

Yours Magazine - June, 2004

Paul Gelernter says he’ll never forget the moment he realised something was seriously wrong with his 8 year old son, Theo.

“I was doing jury duty when I got a phone call. The doctor said, ‘you’d better come in for a chat.’ Doctors don’t call you in for good news do they?”

The news that Paul and his wife Linda got from paediatrician Warren Hyer at Northwick Park Hospital was that a small lump on their oldest son’s neck indicated non-Hodgkins lymphoma. 
Theo had cancer. The next day the Gelernters took Theo to Great Ormond Street Hospital to confirm the diagnosis.

Paul says,”once you get over the initial shock then you want to get some good information and get on with it.”

That’s when the Gelernter family turned to the charity, CancerBACUP.

“I went off to the internet. It was information overload, some of it was rubbish,” remembers Paul. “The CancerBACUP website was well set out, clear and had an especially good section dealing with children. They were very sympathetic and did an awful lot of explaining about treatments.”

“Through CancerBACUP we were able to contact specialist nurses who work in cancer units everyday. Even before Theo went into hospital for his treatments, we found out what we were going to face and how we could best deal with it.”

The day before he started the first of five cycles of chemotherapy Linda, Paul, and 5 ½ year old brother, Jake threw Theo a birthday party, inviting their entire extended family.

“That was a bit of a day,” confesses Paul. “The whole family was here, playing games, having fun. Theo spent the whole day laughing.

“The worse thing was you wouldn’t notice that Theo was ill. That was something that’s pretty hard to deal with. We had to tell him, ‘you are ill and we’re going to make you more ill.’”

And the treatments did make Theo very ill indeed. He not only suffered hair and weight loss, but extremes of constipation and diarrhoea. There were mouth and stomach ulcers to get through and terrible pains in his bones. Theo was in and out of hospital for five long months.

According to Paul, “what Theo needed most was his Mum and Dad and the love we bring. When a child is on the toilet with constipation crying in pain, and doctors have given him all the medication they can and it’s still not working - a parent has to be there.

“The strength of the parents will dictate how a child will deal with their illness. If parents are strong, determined and clear and show lots of love, the child will feed off it.”

According to CancerBACUP, one million people in Britain are living with cancer. One in three people will develop cancer at some stage during their lifetime. Last year alone the charity‘s specialist nurses were able to answer over 34,000 calls and letters. They provided 2400 face to face sessions with professional counsellors and distributed 200,000 information booklets on living with cancer and cancer treatments.

CancerBACUP also helped prepare the Gelernters for Theo coming home while he was still vulnerable to life-threatening infection. They encouraged them not to panic when Theo’s personality “changed” and he became aggressive and difficult.

“They told us ‘it’s absolutely normal. Don’t worry about it. It won’t be forever,’ says Paul.”

When Theo returned to school, still sporting a nose tube and other signs of treatment, the charity offered to help prepare teachers and students for his return. Paul himself fielded questions from Theo’s classmates.

“They wanted to know if Theo was going to live. Others asked if it was true that Theo had only got really pretty nurses looking after him.”

More than a year after his last chemotherapy treatment, Theo is doing well and receives regular check-ups.

“We’re more aware of children’s and cancer charities now than we used to be,” says Paul.

Linda even decided to run the London Marathon in 2003 raising £32,000 for charity in the process.

“To be honest, this experience has taught me if there’s something you love doing you have to go for it,” admits Linda. Trained as a professional musician, Linda recently began singing with the jazz band, “Anything Goes,” after many years away from performing.

“Children are resilient. Theo’s moved on. He’s forgotten. I don’t think he’ll understand the seriousness of what he’s been through until he’s older,” concludes Paul, grateful that his son is back in the thick of life as an ordinary 9 year-old boy.

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