Childhood Cancer

Childhood Cancer Survivors

The silver lining

In the past, most studies of the effects of the cancer experience on survivors have focused on negative effects. More recently, the existence of positive impact after cancer is also being recognized. Although no one would volunteer for the cancer experience, many survivors and their families find great meaning from their suffering. They tell heartwarming stories about the positive effects on their lives. Often, they discuss in reassuring and hopeful terms a renewed appreciation for life and an awareness of the value of each day.

Oh, there are a ton of benefits. While I don’t think cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me (although I have a friend who says this), I do have a clarity I didn’t have before. I know myself so much better. I know I can face anything since I beat cancer. I am very proud of myself for facing it and surviving. I’ve met a wonderful group of friends. And I’m much closer to my family than I was before the cancer.

• • • • •

Today the director of personnel of our company came down to announce we would be selling our Gulf of Mexico assets and closing this office. Oddly, the human relations guy wondered why I took the news so well. Heck, I am thrilled at Garrett’s test results and happy after a great family weekend. This is just a job. Last I heard they can’t kill me or eat me. I guess that kind of perspective is one of the good things that have come from this cancer experience. (But I would never, ever recommend it!)

A teenager whose brother donated the bone marrow that cured her of AML said:

My brother and I were always really close, but his sharing his bone marrow bonded us forever. There is a part of him in me that will always live on in me. That’s an amazing thing to have. He saved my life.

Having watched others battle cancer, and after fighting the disease myself, I have come to realize how very fortunate I am. The most important life lessons that I hold as daily guidance are the ones I learned at a very young age. I learned to never give up, and to keep striving no matter what the circumstance. I remember vividly one night when I was in the hospital. I decided that I had experienced enough, and was ready to give up. My mom, however, never lost hope. She bundled me up in my wheelchair, took me out of the hospital illegally, and we cruised around the streets of Toronto in the middle of winter. From that moment on, I looked at life in a different light. I saw how precious life was, and no matter how tough times might seem, there is always hope. Now, 12 years later, when I encounter difficulties, I know that I can make it through, because I made it through much worse.

And her mother speaks with wonder and gratitude about the bond her children share:

My daughter is great—a very positive and mature person. She has always loved her brother deeply, but they now have a bond that transcends any sibling relationship that I know. It’s really quite moving watching them interact. She flew to New York for his birthday, and the woman who picked her up at the airport commented on them interacting when they saw each other. He throws his arms around her, protects her, etc. She said that she actually felt like she was intruding on a very magical relationship.

Many survivors, even very young ones, become deeply compassionate as a result of their cancer experiences.

There is a young boy on our street (moved in 1 week before the beginning of school) and he has a very bad lisp and appears to be a little slow. (He talks slow, walks slow, does things very slowly.) But because the other kids have not had an opportunity to be around this kind of person before, they shunned him. But not my Lizzy. She said, “Just because someone looks different or talks different or wears different clothing, it does not make them an animal. They are still human beings, and Robert from across the street will be my friend. He’s okay, you know, Mom?” I did know that.

We have since found out that Robert from across the street was involved in a very horrible car accident when he was little, and hence the speech problem and slowness. Too bad we can’t all get past our prejudices the way Lizzy has.

• • • • •

As we approach the 3-year mark, I marvel at my son’s ability to proceed with his life. He doesn’t talk about his leukemia. He doesn’t use it as an excuse, no matter how valid it might be. He’s busy being a 17-year-old boy going into his senior year. Stand back please.

A week from today he and I, along with some friends, will leave for our annual bike ride across Iowa. This ride has been a symbol of his recovery for me for the last 2 years. He was diagnosed in July 1995. He rode 450 miles in July 1996 and again in 1997. Once more this year, as he climbs on his bike and heads down the road, I will give thanks that he is here to participate, just as I will when he runs onto the football field this fall. I am proud not only of his physical abilities, but of his resolve and courage. I am also proud of his compassion and sensitivity to other people, which has become so obvious over the last 3 years.

Our experience with leukemia has led us, child and parent, to grow in ways we never would have guessed. My first coherent thought in the hospital room 3 years ago after hearing the word leukemia was: “Our lives will never be the same again.” I was right, but at the time, I had no idea of the many ways—some of them good—that leukemia would change us.

Other survivors stress the positive aspects of treatment for cancer.

I’ve gained a lot of self-confidence from the cancer experience. Whenever there is a challenging obstacle to confront, I convince myself that if I survived the brain tumor, this is nothing! I’ve definitely become a much stronger person.

• • • • •

As horrible as it was, I wouldn’t change the experience for anything. There were a lot of blessings that came out of it. It’s given me a much more optimistic outlook on life. I don’t think my family has ever laughed so much or so hard as those 3 years when I was on treatment. Now I laugh all the time—it’s really improved my sense of humor.

There are numerous people who helped my family while I was on treatment whom I probably would not have met otherwise. The track my life has taken has changed. I wouldn’t have pursued art if not for the cancer. I don’t think I would have been involved in crew in college if not for it. And winning the national championship was very rewarding. The people I’ve met on treatment and while working as a camp counselor for kids with cancer mean so much to me. It really changed my life.

Some family members express relief that it’s over.

Looking back on all that has happened is hard, but for now life is good, so that is what we concentrate on, squeezing every last drop out of all the good times. Treatment is like banging your head against a brick wall: wonderful when it stops!

Others simply say that their entire view of the world has shifted forever.

I do wonder what he would have looked like if he hadn’t had to go through treatment for cancer, but this really doesn’t make me sad, nor do I reflect on it often. The whole cancer experience has changed my outlook so much that I know these things are not important. I laugh at my old ideas, how frivolous I was! Who can even imagine that looks are important at all in the large scheme of things?! I feel I had the luxury back then to be frivolous and petty and, well, lighthearted. I am no longer lighthearted, but my heart has grown so very much that I would not trade my old life for my new. I only wish my son hadn’t had to have cancer for me to “see the light.”

• • • • •

It’s sad to say, but I think my daughter and I are better people for having survived the cancer experience. I’ve learned to appreciate things more. It reminds me of the story about a wheel that lost a wedge out of it. It was no longer a perfect circle, so it was only able to roll very slowly. But because of its slow speed, it could smell the flowers and enjoy the beauty of the world around it. Later, the wheel found its missing piece and repaired itself. Being whole again it was able to roll much faster. At the faster speed, though, it wasn’t able to notice the beauty around it. So it took the wedge back out.