Health

Mom, son fight cancer together, find 'new normal'

Dec. 17, 2013 at 4:33 PM ET

For the Perry family, Christmas this year will be a little different.

The festivities will not be held at grandma’s house, or at home in Nashua, N.H., but in a hospital room where Owen Perry, 12, is receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.

By the middle of January, Owen, a 7th grader with a fondness for practical jokes, will have completed his fourth and final round of chemotherapy. With his doctor’s permission, Owen will return home, where the family plans to celebrate a second Christmas by cooking a big feast and opening more presents.

“We’ll make a new tradition for just this year,” his mother Karen told TODAY.com.

The Perry family, left to right: Owen, 12, Karen, 48, Julia, 13; Brian, 48.
Courtesy of the Perry family
The Perry family, left to right: Owen, 12, Karen, 48, Julia, 13; Brian, 48.

That celebration will also mark an important moment for Karen. In July, a few months before her son was diagnosed with leukemia, Karen, 48, was told that she had ovarian cancer. She has just finished 18 weeks of chemotherapy.

Related: Mom, daughter face double cancer diagnosis together

Though Karen must wait three months to learn whether her cancer is in remission, Owen’s expected return home in January will finally bring the family of four together under one roof again for the first time in several months.

Karen and her husband Brian, 48, have taken turns driving an hour every day to stay with Owen at the Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, where he is receiving in-patient treatment.

Owen and his mother Karen.
Courtesy of the Perry family
Owen and his mother Karen.

“Everything has basically been turned upside down,” said Brian. That includes the life of the couple’s 13-year-old daughter Julia, who has sometimes stayed with friends and family when Brian and Karen couldn’t be home.

There are many things the family, whose story was first reported by the Nashua Telegraph, misses about their lives before cancer. Owen wishes he could play more video games, eat lunch with his friends at school, and get back on the basketball court with his team. Karen longs to play golf and join her friends for a girls' night out. Brian would love for the family to gather around the dinner table again.

Though it's rare for one immediate family to receive two cancer diagnoses, it does happen occasionally, said Dr. Anna Muriel, a psychiatrist at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. And while just one diagnosis can strain and exhaust a family, when both a parent and child are undergoing treatment, it creates a unique challenge.

The parent, Muriel said, has to “balance their own vulnerability and their real drive to take of their child.”

For the Perrys, the diagnoses came just weeks apart. When they learned of Karen’s diagnosis, they were shocked. And when Owen’s diagnosis followed, the family found itself in denial. “My reaction was, ‘Wow, what’s around the corner now?’” Brian said.

Karen and Owen Perry, mother and son, are each battling their own cancers.
Don Himsel / The Nashua Telegraph
Karen and Owen Perry.

Many families dealing with a cancer diagnosis, Muriel said, feel both the threat of loss and a new strength and closeness. To help patients and their loved ones understand these emotions, hospitals frequently offer counseling and support groups.

While Owen regularly meets with a social worker, the Perrys have yet to take advantage of therapy services. Instead, they’ve relied on family and friends for support — something that Karen said was difficult to do at first.

“People are always asking to help,” she said. “The hardest thing was to accept that help. You think you can do it all on your own.”

But their loved ones have stepped in, preparing meals and helping to coordinate Julia’s schedule. One friend who couldn’t cook gave the family a parking pass for the hospital garage, which saved them both money and time. Their families hosted two separate benefits, raising several thousand dollars to help pay for hospital bills and lost income, since Karen and Brian had taken leave from their jobs. And one night last week, the Perrys returned home to find that neighbors had decorated their two-story colonial home with Christmas lights and ornaments.

Owen Perry and Sandra Fenwick, president and CEO of Boston Children's Hospital, after Owen helped light a hospital Christmas tree.
Katherine C. Cohen / Boston Children's Hospital
Owen Perry and Sandra Fenwick, president and CEO of Boston Children's Hospital, after Owen helped light a hospital Christmas tree.

“Acts like that make you think there’s a lot of great people out there in the world,” said Brian.

Now the Perrys are looking forward to the promise of January, and the possibility of helping families like theirs by raising awareness about ovarian and pediatric cancer.

“It’s nice to know people have gone through what you’ve gone through and they’re alive,” Karen said. “Cancer is not a death sentence anymore.”

The experience has also given them a new perspective on balancing all of life’s demands. When they return to a “new normal” next year, Karen said, they might not be working as long or as hard, and that would be fine.

“You put your family on hold to better your career,” Brian said. “Now you know, what’s better than family? Nothing.” 

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