Parents and Chronic Illness

Parents who struggle with a chronic illness have a lot on their plate. But they've also found ways to appreciate life that we can all learn from.

Just a little while after Cathy Roll and her husband, David, adopted their daughters, Grace and Christine, then 6 and 8, they got news that changed their brand-new family forever: Cathy was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).

"I had been struggling with pain and fatigue even before we went to Ukraine for the adoption," Roll recalls, "but after we returned, it was just relentless. At first I thought, 'Well, maybe this is what motherhood is all about.' But chasing around after two children made me so incredibly tired, like I had fallen into a dark hole."

She had. Seemingly over-night, the 48-year-old mom from Englewood, Colorado, found herself navigating the unpredictable reality of chronic disease, the term used to describe any long-term illness that can last or recur over a lifetime. Such conditions affect tens of millions of Americans, many of them mothers and fathers of young children, and include diagnoses like MS and other autoimmune dis-eases, as well as diabetes, asthma, and depression. Because of treatment breakthroughs and the likelihood of recurrences, cancer is also often considered a chronic illness, not just a terminal one. Even on the days and weeks that these parents are symptom-free, they live with the threat of flare-ups, as well as the worry of how they will care for their children when their lives are interrupted by the demands of their illness.

"Handling chronic illness is about learning to live in balance," says Rosalind Dorlen, Psy.D., a psychotherapist with Overlook Hospital, in Summit, New Jersey, who specializes in treating the depression and anxiety that often accompany long-term health problems. "You can't dwell on questions like, 'Why is this happening to me?' or 'What if it gets worse?' But you do have to be constantly conscious of your health status, and take the time to rest, exercise, and have fun. It's important to focus on feeling well and to maintain a positive outlook." And many parents have learned to do just that.

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