ANN BAILEY: Special lessons

Nearly two years ago, when my daughter, Ellen, was diagnosed with leukemia, I felt like my world had been shattered. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be the mother of a child with cancer and it was not a role I wanted.

Ann Bailey
Ann Bailey

Nearly two years ago, when my daughter, Ellen, was diagnosed with leukemia, I felt like my world had been shattered. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be the mother of a child with cancer and it was not a role I wanted.

But like it or not, that was the reality of my situation and I vowed that I would do everything I could to help Ellen and her brothers deal with her illness. I steeled myself and forged ahead, not knowing what lie ahead, but determined to face whatever it was head on.

Letting go

While I anticipated that the journey would be tough and there would be times I would feel like I couldn't cope, I wasn't prepared for the ways that Ellen's cancer helped me to grow as a mother.

One of the first things I learned was to let the little things, such as housecleaning, lawn mowing and weeding the garden, go and to focus on what was important. During the first year and a half of Ellen's treatments she often was sick and we frequently made trips to the hospital emergency room and clinics for antibiotics to treat infections.


We couldn't anticipate when Ellen's fever would spike, so that taught me to cherish each moment that she was feeling good. Instead of rushing around cleaning the house or weeding the garden when I had a spare moment, I discovered what a blessing it was to simply sit and play a board game or read a book with Ellen.

Another thing that her illness taught me is to be more flexible. I still am a planner who makes lists, but it doesn't send me into a tailspin when plans change. Through my experience with Ellen's cancer, I know that my schedule can change in an instant.

I am conscious, even when I am at work, that I could get a phone call that can completely change my plans for the day, which puts into perspective what is truly important. Though I love my job, enjoy the people I interview and take pleasure in writing their stories, I will put them aside at a moment's notice if my daughter is ill.

Other lessons

Learning flexibility is an especially good lesson for someone like me, who likes her life to be structured, and one that I'm sure my children appreciate. It's good to be able to "go with the flow" and accept unexpected changes in the routine gracefully. As I often tell my children, "plans change."

Along with learning to accept change, Ellen's illness also has taught me to appreciate the resiliency of children and their ability to bounce back. Throughout these past two years, Ellen has done little complaining and kept on playing, going to school and keeping her brothers in line.

For example, one day, she will have a spinal tap, breathing treatment and chemotherapy-IV, and the next day she will be playing flag football. Her "go get 'em" inspires me to forge ahead when I am feeling down about her illness and shows me that if she can do it, so can I. Ellen is a trouper who meets life head on and I have little choice but to take the same approach to her illness, and to life, in general.

Being a trouper is a good quality for any mother to have because not only is motherhood a vocation with its share of challenges, it is a lifelong job.


Having a child with cancer helped me to understand better the challenges that other mothers (and fathers) of seriously ill children face. Witnessing the health struggles that Ellen battled when her leukemia was active and, later, the affect that chemotherapy had on her also gave me a glimpse of what the lives of parents with special needs children are like. That has made me a more compassionate mother and taught me how important it is to lend support to other parents who are going through tough times with their children.


I am fortunate that there are many people who have helped me and my family along the way. Ellen's illness has taught me that it's OK to ask for help when I need it. Not trying to do everything myself and trying to be "Mother of the Year" every day, has taken some of the pressure off of me and made me a more relaxed mother. While I believe that parents are the primary teachers and are responsible for bringing up their children, having a "village" of support does help.

By far the most important lesson, I've learned is to rely on my faith in God. Despite the fact that Ellen's illness has taught me many things, I more often than not still feel inadequate to deal with many of the challenges and answer the multitude of questions that her illness raises.

When I am faced with challenges that seem insurmountable or with questions that I can't answer, I leave them in the hands of God. I know that he unfailingly will help me, whether by giving me the strength to preserve, leading me to the answer or to someone else who does, or by helping me to accept that I may not find an answer.

My Roman Catholic faith is the greatest gift my mother, by her deeds, teaching and example, has given me and I want to bestow that same gift on my children. Ellen's journey with cancer has challenged me to explore the depths of my faith and to trust that no matter what lies ahead, I can handle it with God's help. That faith and trust in God is something I am working to pass on to my children.

Today, Mother's Day, I am thankful for the gifts of lessons learned, for Ellen's good health, for the family, friends and community that support her and our family and for the faith that will sustain me when the going again becomes rough.

What To Read Next
Get Local