P.E.I. family battling three rare cancers

Three members of the Welsh family of Warren Grove were diagnosed on the same day

Jim Day jday@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on April 19, 2014

Cancer consumes the Welsh family.

Three of the four members of this Warren Grove clan were diagnosed on the same day, Sept. 6, 2013, with the same illness — a rare genetic thyroid cancer.

As Susan Welsh, the only person spared from the disease, notes, the family was simply going about life when “this just slapped us in the face.’’

The cancer has slapped her husband Fabian, the couple’s 21-year-old son Matthew and their 16-year-old daughter Jennifer.

Life now is far from normal. Cancer has redefined how the family lives, how they feel, even how they think.

“It changed everything,’’ says Susan. “I wish the same thing I wished from the start. I wish I could take it (her family’s cancer) and put it inside me.’’

Susan may not have the cancer but she more than feels the collective weight of this disease striking her two children and her husband.

The strain of having her three family members in peril is crushing. She has taken a break from work, finding the challenge of going about her job while worrying over and carrying for her family to be just too much of a load.

“The three of us are sick, but she (Susan) is taking it the hardest,’’ Jennifer says of her mother.

Still, Susan is exhibiting the strength needed to carry her family forward through a monumental ordeal. She is methodical in compiling all the important data and documents dealing with the cancer facing her son, her daughter and her husband. Test results, blood work and the like are carefully collected and stored in a binder.

Susan is on top of all aspects of care and treatment required by her family.

“It if wasn’t for Susan, we would be lost,’’ says Fabian.

Fabian says all he thinks about while driving a cab trying to support his family is the fact that his son and his daughter are battling cancer.

Like Fabian, Matthew has stage three of this rare form of cancer, just one stage below the top and most dangerous level.

Matthew has just completed a punishing round of external radiation. The five-day-a-week pounding was delivered in 33 treatments. Matthew says after a few weeks his skin started to burn, causing great pain and discomfort.

He needs to wait six to 12 months to learn if the cancer has been killed. However, even if the radiation proves to have been successful, he will need to undergo the unpleasant procedure again sometime down the road.

Fabian is clearly more pained in witnessing the suffering of his son than in battling his own cancer.

How could such a bad hand be delivered to his boy, he asks.

“He hasn’t smoked, he hasn’t drank, he hasn’t done a damn thing wrong in his life,’’ says Fabian.

Jennifer, who was diagnosed with stage one of thyroid cancer, fortunately is in remission but she and her family know the cancer could return. She has suffered plenty to date.

Like her father and her brother, Jennifer has undergone surgery to remove the thyroid gland and she faces more surgery in the future.

The diagnosis — being told she had cancer — was something the teen simply was not able to wrap her head around. The reality was just not believable that she, her brother and her father all face a battle with a potentially deadly disease.

“It’s almost like we’re used to it now,’’ she adds, “but it’s still not real.’’

Susan says people are floored when she informs them that three members of her family — her husband, her son and her daughter — all have cancer.

“They just can’t believe it,’’ she says.

Lori Barker, executive director of the Canadian Cancer Society, P.E.I. Division, describes as “incredibly rare’’ having three out of four family members with cancer, including two relatively young members. She says when just one person alone has cancer the emotional burden on an entire family is still immense.

“When we take that and multiply by three...our hearts go out to the family,’’ she says. “You are just so heartened to see the community come together.’’

Support has been steadily flowing to the Welsh family. Spirits are lifted with each gesture, from financial assistance to emotional support.

“If it weren’t for friends, I don’t know,’’ says Fabian.

Many people are rallying to help the family address the financial burden of their situation. Imagine the costs alone associated with the 30 to 35 trips made to Halifax to date to deal with three ill individuals.

A benefit is set for April 25 at the Murphy’s Community Centre in Charlottetown from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.

To learn more about the benefit or to make a donation, visit www.welshfamilybenefit.com. A trust account has also been established for the family at TD Bank at 695 University Avenue in Charlottetown.

Matthew’s outlook is a good illustration that his family, while certainly welcoming community support, is also determined to make the best of a bad situation as a closeknit, supportive family.

“The way I think of it now is it is just a day to day thing,’’ he says.

“You have to take care of it.’’

Later, he adds: “For me it gives me a different outlook on life. You have to live it to the fullest.’’

Susan Welsh, second from left, is standing strongly behind her husband Fabian and the couple's two children Matthew and Jennifer as her three loved ones all battle cancer.

©Jim Day - The Guardian