Parents Fight Joint Cancer Diagnoses

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Photo: Shelby Offrink/Facebook

There’s a saying in the medical community that cancer is a “family disease.” And with an estimated 24 percent of adults with cancer parenting children younger than age 18, that’s certainly true. But the Offrink family’s struggle against the disease still stands apart. Not one but both parents are fighting a heartbreaking battle for their lives and the chance to grow old with their two young children.

Lowell, Michigan native Shelby Offrink, 31, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a rare incurable Stage IV cancer in her spine, just two months after welcoming preemie daughter Hazel, now one-year-old. (Daughter Maeve is 3). And after months of treatment, Shelby’s physicians discovered three new tumors – this time on her brain. 

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Shelby’s husband Ben, who had already survived two previous rounds battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, learned not long after Hazel was born that his disease had returned for a third time, as well. 

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So as Shelby, a former engineer, receives chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the stay-at-home dad prepares for a bone marrow transplant following another batch of chemotherapy. “It feels really unfair to have all of this happen,” Jay Tomczak, Shelby’s brother tells KVUE. “This has been the most challenging year of their lives.” Shelby’s other brother Luke, describes the situation as a “terrible dream.” What’s kept them going, says Jay, is “the love and support from the family and all the friends.” 

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Photo: Shelby Offrink/Facebook

The family is hoping to garner even more support from strangers with a fundraising page on YouCaring.com along with local events in their community. “Ben’s treatment will require him to be away from home for an extended period of time,” organizers write on the family’s page, noting that donations will go “directly to Shelby to pay for medical bills, food, household needs, and any other support they require.” 

There was a bit of good news on Friday: Shelby was discharged from the hospital. “[She] was so excited to go home, especially since it was her birthday,” write organizers on the site’s update page. “Close family and friends spent the night with her enjoying just a few of her faves — sushi, cheesecake and most important, her two beautiful girls! They were so excited to have mommy home.” 

That’s an understandable reaction, says psychologist Anne Coscarelli, founder and director of the Simms/Mann UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. ”When parents discover they have cancer, the biggest concern is ‘Who’s going to take care of the kids?’” Coscarelli tells Yahoo Parenting. “And for the kids it’s, ‘Who’s gonna take care of me?’” 

“It’s not one disease, one outcome, one parent,” she adds. “There are many, many different situations” which often boil down to the simple goal of helping kids be OK while a parent is ill. 

For some, that means focusing on the present by putting in place or cementing routines that give kids a sense of stability.“Some parents also emphasize building memories now, investing in the present,” she says. “They tend to be more focused with their attention. There may be a sense of having less time. Parents may start to lead more condensed lives as a result and feel the need to pack more into the time they have with their kids.” 

For other parents, it’s staying focused on the future – whether or not they believe they’ll be a part of it. “Many parents want to be sure they leave a legacy for their children,” says Coscarelli. Think photo albums, letters, videos, notes to be opened at important stages of children’s lives. Coscarelli says it’s helpful for both parents and kids if mom or dad documents his or her wishes, hopes, thoughts on how children have grown and how the parents perceive them. “Those legacies build communication about what you’ve learned in life and want to share. They can be a very powerful thing to someone,” she says. 

No matter what, raising children during this emotional roller-coaster is about learning to accept constant readjustment. “Parents can have more than one feeling at a time: sadness and worry, and hopefulness and optimism,” says Coscarelli. 

Just like cancer-fighting mom Shelby. “Shelby has the best sense of humor and a quick wit that’s rare to find,” write the friends who created the family’s fundraising page. “Ben is like a gentle giant (standing at 6’6). The daily love he pours out to his girls and Shelby is what true love is really about. They are much more than just two people with cancer. They are husband and wife, mom and dad, best friends…Shelby and Ben, you are bigger than this.” 

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