When Mike Robinson and Suzanne Paradis received the devastating diagnosis in September 2018 that Mike had glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer than can occur in the brain or spinal cord, one of their first thoughts was how the illness was going to impact their young sons. Ultimately, Suzanne wanted to ensure that the boys — 12 and 8 years old at the time — would have the emotional support they would need throughout their father’s experience with cancer.
“As a parent, you instantly have 20 million questions about how to navigate this with your kids,” says Suzanne, who is a biology professor at Brandeis University. “Your husband is in surgery. You’re in crisis. You need answers now. But it takes months to get connected with a therapist, never mind finding someone who has as much experience as Paula [Rauch, MD] and the other clinicians in the PACT Program. To have this resource right there at Massachusetts General Hospital, accessible and free — it is miraculous to me. It’s the best thing that could have happened in a horrible situation that I wish had never happened.”
A Guide in a Cancer Minefield
In the months after the diagnosis, the Paradis family took comfort in Dr. Rauch’s combination of compassion and wisdom. Dr. Rauch provided reassurance, reference materials and conversational scripts for how Mike and Suzanne could navigate difficult situations with their sons: What to do if their 8-year-old had a headache and asked if it was a brain tumor. How to create precious family memories, like a vacation to Universal Studios, without a morbid cloud hanging over the trip. What to say when, after a successful initial surgery, the cancer recurred in July 2019. How to support their sons as they made their own honest choices in their father’s final days.
“Once you’re handed a terminal diagnosis, the only thing you can do is get through it with as much grace and emotional resilience as possible,” Suzanne says. “Paula was my constant resource, the guide for the whole thing. I had a partner for the things you’re not going to tell other family members or friends because they’re medical and personal. She was always able to find the exact right thing to say or an example from another situation, and she made me feel heard and supported.”
The Kids Are OK
After Mike died in November 2020, Suzanne Paradis continued to connect with Dr. Rauch about her children, made possible by telemedicine during the isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suzanne clung to Dr. Rauch’s words from their first meeting: with the right support, helping parents to be as emotionally healthy as they can be while navigating a terminal illness, studies show the kids are OK.
“This is a defining moment in our life, but it doesn’t have to change the trajectory of my kids’ future, personal growth and well-being,” Suzanne says. “It’s heartbreaking and they will forever miss their dad, but we did this so they can still be well-adjusted adults. I hope they remember that we always dealt with what was going on with complete openness and honesty, per Paula’s advice.”