How I Coped With My Granddaughter’s Childhood Cancer Diagnosis: A Grandmother’s Story

April 3, 2024
Mardie Caldwell Christensen

Mardie Caldwell Christensen is an award-winning author. Her new book, Ellie, The Brave, Bald Fairy, is a heartwarming children's book inspired by her granddaughter. Mardie shares her inspiring experiences through interviews, podcasts, and articles. You can follow Mardie on Facebook.

My granddaughter Ellie's battle with a stage 3 Wilms tumor was like facing an unexpected storm. Surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy became the tools we used to navigate through it. It wasn't just a physical struggle; the emotional weight was heart-wrenching. 

At the tender age of 7, Ellie found herself in a world of uncertainty and fear. Diagnosed just 2 weeks before Christmas, we had to explain cancer to this vibrant little girl, including the fact that she would lose her hair. When we noticed Ellie's golden strands thinning in January, she was sad but prepared. Being the resilient spirit that she is, Ellie just said, "Oh, my hair is on vacation," drawing strength from a book we had shared.

Finding joy amid challenges 

One weekend, Ellie decided to explore my collection of wigs. I wear them occasionally when I want to feel a bit different—a little secret I've held onto since I lost a significant amount of hair after surgery years ago. Ellie embraced the opportunity to try on various wigs, twirling around in the longest and curliest one. Laughter echoed through the room, and in that moment, she was a different Ellie—a carefree spirit.

Taking our newfound joy to the streets, we walked into town. Wearing the wig, Ellie had a big smile from ear to ear. She wanted to ensure it didn't look like a wig, displaying a level of resilience that was both heartwarming and inspiring. A bold comment from a shop clerk about "a lot of hair" didn't even faze her. Ellie smiled, and we gracefully moved on.

As Ellie's hair slowly grows back, it's different from what it used to be. The transformation is not just physical; it reflects the emotional journey she's been on. It made me realize how challenging it can be for girls to be around others with the kind of hair they either once had or wished for. 

Coping with a grandchild’s cancer diagnosis

In the past 5 years, I have had 3 members of my family diagnosed with cancer. One was the oldest family member and one was the youngest. One of the biggest lessons I learned during those 5 years is to ask for help and to accept help when offered. The cancer experience can be long and will take a lot out of both the person with cancer and those caring for them. You may want to consider setting up a family group chat or social media page, as you will have lots of friends and family asking for updates and it can be very exhausting and time-consuming to update everyone individually.

Additionally, I learned that, especially as a parent or grandparent of a child with cancer, you can be so focused on the child that you forget to care for yourself. To maintain your strength, you need to put some focus on your self-care. You can do this by taking some time to walk around the hospital, meditate, pray, or do whatever gives you some time to refresh and regroup. I found journaling was comforting to me. I also found that it can be easy to turn to some unhealthy choices during this time, so it is important to try to make healthy choices when you can. This can be choosing a healthy protein snack instead of grabbing a candy bar or having a tall glass of water instead of a soda.

Another lesson I learned was to make sure to ask the doctors all the questions you want, and then ask them if there are questions you should be asking that you haven't. You should also never feel afraid to ask for a second opinion. From the start, write down the names of the doctors, nurses, and any other staff members who are going to be involved in your child's care. Be kind to all, for they have a very tough job. My family found that kindness and empathy can go a long way. Remember, too, that there are a lot of resources out there to help. Ask the health care team what resources may be available to you and your family.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to reach out to others who are going through what you are. Connect with support groups in person or online. Hearing stories from others and sharing your own experiences can be very therapeutic.

Blossoming creativity during hardship

As a mother and grandmother, when cancer touched my family, I found myself facing fears and uncertainties that no amount of preparation could have readied me for. In those moments of struggle, storytelling became a lifeline—a way to entertain and encourage Ellie throughout her treatment.

My daily journaling became more than just documenting Ellie's journey; it transformed into the foundation of my children’s book, Ellie, The Brave, Bald Fairy. I hope that this book, arising from our adversity, may serve as a guiding light to those encountering similar hardships. Throughout her cancer journey, Ellie always was looking for ways to help other children facing cancer. Her heart has always been a generous one.

Today, Ellie is a cancer-free, artistic, and theatrical girl who embraces life with open arms. Her strength is not just a testament to her journey but also shows the joy she finds in helping others. I share our story with the hope that it resonates with others, bringing a sense of unity and encouragement during difficult times. You are not alone in this journey, and together, we can find the strength and hope needed to face childhood cancer. 

The author has no relevant relationships to disclose.

Share your thoughts on this blog post on Cancer.Net's Facebook and Twitter.