What Childhood Cancer Can't Take From Us

What Childhood Cancer Can't Take From Us

Most people who have had cancer would probably tell you that the worst day of their life was the day they found out they had it. Because it happens to other people, and you're too healthy and you're too young and your future is too promising for it to happen to you. Surely you heard wrong, surely that wasn't a tear you felt fall onto your hand from your mother's face while she sits beside you and has heard exactly what you did. Yes, it's cancer you've got. And you're about to find out what you're really made of.

That day for me was July 1st, 2010 and I was five thousand miles away from home. But I wouldn't tell you that was the worst day of my life. No, mine came a month later, when in a hospital room in Seattle my team of oncologists told my family and me that all the chemo and radiation in the world wouldn't be enough save my life. For that, I was going to need a stem cell transplant, which was going to have to come from someone who I'd never even met who was more biologically similar to me than my own sister and who may or may not even exist. I was asking the world, the universe, and God himself to please let there be someone out there whose heart was big enough to save my life without even knowing my name, my age, where I lived, or what I looked like.

I was asking for a miracle. And I got one, from three thousand miles away from young woman who did it for all the sisters out there like mine who couldn't save their younger brothers themselves. She saved my life in an afternoon, and she did it because even without knowing anything about me, she thought I deserved a second chance.

But how could I could I have imagined how hard it was going to be after that? How could I have imagined that I would have two cardiac arrests in one day, spend a month in a catatonic state, and be stuck in the hospital for all but seventy days of that year? How could I have imagined how hard I would have to fight, how many prayers would have to be said, and how many more tears would have tofall before everything was okay again?

People do not beat cancer on their own. It is only with the love and laugher of their families and friends do cancer patients become cancer survivors, and when families are split up because their sick son or daughter is stuck in the hospital, the laughter leaves the room when the last loved one goes home for the night. My friends and family would come to visit but at some point every day they all had to leave and then it was just my cancer and me, sitting by ourselves in a hospital room in Seattle, alone. And if there's one thing a cancer patient doesn't need, it's more loneliness. But it doesn't have to be that way and lucky for us, there's someone who's moving heaven and earth right now to change it.

I first met Suzanne Gwynn five years ago when I was a patient on the Seattle Children's oncology unit. I was twenty years old, a junior in college, and had an aggressive form of leukemia. She worked the night shift a few days a week and she used to sit with me sometimes in the middle of the night to talk, to laugh, to cry or to just be there because sometimes that's all a kid with cancer needs. Today, she is one of my very best friends and by far, one my my greatest inspirations.

Throughout her entire 30-year career as an oncology nurse, she has done for all of her patients what she did for me on those nights; she has cared with a heart that's a thousand times bigger than most and she has done everything, and I mean everything, to make being a kid who has cancer even just a little bit better. That very part of who she is is exactly what's driving her to give the gift of Ladybug House to patients like me and to families like mine. Because we need it. Because families need to be together in their darkest of days. And because, like she showed me, sometimes it's little things we can control that make the biggest of differences when our child has cancer. Suzanne's dream is built on understanding, compassion, solidarity, and love, and it is something that's a thousand times stronger and more enduring than any cancer could ever hope to be.

For thirty years, she has seen children too sick to go home but too healthy to stay in the hospital get stuck there because there is no other option. She's seen how hospitals take away the possibility for families to spend precious quality time together doing normal things, and she knows all too well how easy it is for vulnerable patients to contract hospital infections. There is a point when sick children should in a hospital and a point when they should be at home, but sometimes, when they're too healthy for one and too sick for the other, they need Ladybug House.

With Ladybug House, we are taking the first step to make that one part of childhood cancer right. Every parent of a child with cancer knows and lives every day a particularly cruel type of helplessness, the heartbreaking fact that there is precious little they can do to make their own children healthy and whole again, but just because they can't shrink their tumors or replace their immune systems themselves doesn't mean they shouldn't be able tuck them in at night. For all the things that parents, siblings, and patients can't control when childhood cancer comes into their lives, Ladybug House will give them back that one little bit of life that they can: family.

I know Suzanne well enough to know that she will not quit until she can stand on the porch of Ladybug House with all our supporters and look up into the heavens and tell all the angels up there who she cared for, laughed with, and cried with when they were with us as children that this, this is all for them. Because the one thing that childhood cancer can't take from us is love, and in those dark and scary and painful days, families need all the love they can get.