Gabriel Peterson was just getting into the groove of parenting four children alongside his wife when tragedy struck. The newest addition to their family, baby Megan, was only four months old when she was diagnosed with a form of pediatric liver cancer called Hepatoblastoma.
Through it all, Peterson remained a rock for his family, making him a super dad we want to honor.
A stunning diagnosis
“The first thing that went through my mind, when the doctor said Megan had cancer was… the fear and sadness in [my wife’s] eyes,” Peterson remembers. “I then thought of Megan, this four-month-old little person, already having had more physical challenges in her short life than her parents or siblings, now being told she had this disease that could lead her to an uncertain path.”
Like any parent faced with a daunting medical diagnosis for his child, Peterson was worried about the unknown — what little Megan would have to endure on her road to recovery and even how that road could conclude.
The evolution of a marriage
Any parent who has dealt with a child’s medical crisis knows how it can affect their marriage. “Megan’s treatment was the dominant theme for our entire family,” Peterson says. “Being so young, she was so trusting of her parents and the wonderful doctors and nurses. It was difficult to witness the side effects of the chemo, but we would feel so much strength from her spirit and courage.”
Peterson explains that he and his wife were pulled in many directions during their daughter’s treatment. His wife would spend most nights at the hospital with Megan. After work, he’d go visit them, and then he’d head home to be present for their three other children.
“When I would get home, I would always call to see how she and Megan were doing,” he says. “These conversations, separated by miles, each trying to help our children, brought us very close together.”
Megan’s siblings: “The life they were used to changed”
“Megan’s experience with cancer directly impacted our other children,” Peterson says. “The life they were used to changed.”
He doesn’t think they completely understood what a cancer diagnosis meant — but they knew it was very scary. “As her treatments progressed, they had to adjust to being away from us, especially their mom, something they were not used to,” he explained. “Mom was often sleeping at the hospital, and Dad would have to leave early and come home late, making their own meals, having little help with homework and not always seeing us in the stands for their Little League games became the new norm.”
Leaning on others: Heroes for Children
Cancer and other serious illnesses can be financially and emotionally draining for families. Facing those hurdles can feel more surmountable with help. After Megan’s diagnosis, the Petersons learned about Heroes for Children, a nonprofit that provides social and financial assistance to families with a child who is dealing with cancer.
Less than one week after they were introduced to Heroes for Children, the Petersons received a check from the organization. They used it to pay bills and for gas to and from work and the hospital.
Equally important, they received emotional and social support. “Date night” might not always be easy for everyday parents, but it’s usually doable on occasion. For those dealing with a child’s cancer treatment, it can feel impossible, yet it’s even more important for a couple to stay connected. The Petersons were able to carve out time on occasions like Valentine’s Day, when the organization hosted childcare for their older children.
They also made sure to participate in Heroes for Children events as a family, focusing on the importance of being together. Caring for a child with cancer throughout treatment and recovery affects everyone in the family, but these special events gave the Petersons an opportunity for fun and connection “not in spite of Megan’s cancer, but in a way, because of it,” he says.
Today, Peterson and his family are able to pay it forward through Heroes for Children by being on the other side. “Whether helping raise money or just helping with the manual labor at event, I love meeting those attending the events, and thanking them in person, telling them the time and money they are donating does in reality bless the lives of real children and their families,” Peterson says. “I tell them they are blessing little people like Megan and her family.”
The best outcome possible
Peterson’s kids are all healthy and happy. His older three are 14-, 12- and 8-years old, and little Megan is three now. “Megan is doing really well,” he says. “She has been cancer-free for two years and has very good liver function. She has some hearing loss — a side effect of the chemotherapy — but has learned some sign language and has hearing aids.”
I asked Peterson what his best advice is for other parents who have a child facing cancer. “Having a child with cancer is not a single event. It will be the most special/sad/scary/lonely experience for the entire family,” he explains. “You will be thrust into a ‘club’ that no one wants to be in. However, once in, you will meet some of the most special people — including patients, doctors and nurses. Let these people help you. You will feel a variety of feelings. And however you feel that minute, hour, or day is right.”
Noting that you’ll get a lot of advice — some of it good and some of it bad — “[r]emember, you do not need to try to feel a certain way. Happy, sad, scared, mad… you are right.”
“In a world that often tries to tear others down, especially kids from other kids, I love helping my kids learn how wonderful and special and amazing they really are,” Peterson says.
“Being a parent does not mean you suddenly are perfect. It is okay to tell your kids you made a mistake and you are trying your best to do better, too. This is an important lesson, no matter how old you are.”
Happy Father’s Day to Gabriel Peterson and every super dad who gives it his all — during the best of the times and the hardest of times.
This article is part of our Super Dad series. We are honoring fathers from all walks of life by telling their stories in the days leading up to Father’s Day.