Speaking of pints of ice cream….
Quite randomly, this topic came up today in the car as we drove to Dallas. Memories returned to David and Kimberly… pints of ice cream are not common in our large family. That would not have been economical. Their memories went something like this:
“The Cancer Kids used to always get pints of ice cream. People would bring them over, but they usually didn’t feel well enough to eat them. But of course they didn’t let us eat them.”
“Yeah, it was especially hard when Greg’s bed was in the family room. He could see the refrigerator so he always knew if we tried to sneak his ice cream.”
Cancer is an experience for the whole family. Parents get especially worn out and it gets so difficult to keep the energy level that is needed for the rest of the family. Wow! How we appreciated every act of kindness, including those coveted pints of ice cream.
When David and Kimberly were worried about Greg watching them sneak his ice cream, they were ten and eight years old respectively. Natalie was twelve. When she was a sophomore in high school she wrote the following essay on how it feels when you go from being the sister of a cancer patient to being a cancer patient yourself.
Enjoy her essay – it has taken awhile for me to get permission to publish it!
Trudging through maple syrup is how I like to explain cancer. Every time you pick up one foot the other sinks deeper. Eventually your wading waist deep; then it’s up to your neck. In that moment, as you’re about to drown in the sticky slime, it is time to make your decision. Choice number one, you can allow yourself to sink and be forgotten as just another tragic cancer case or, choice two, you can start kicking and struggling and becoming a heroic survivor. The two options are inevitably placed before every cancer patient and their family.
Greg, my older brother, was 17 when he was first diagnosed with cancer; I was twelve. I remember eating macaroni and cheese for dinner the night that my mother told us. Denial was my first reaction. Cancer was something that you read about in magazines. Cancer was just stories. My immature “tween” brain could not have imagined the struggle which would be placed before me over the next seven months. Life was pouring the maple syrup while I watched. It happened so quickly; one day I was normal, then suddenly it hit me. The only way out of the mess was to take step after step, but the syrup kept pouring.
Every week one of my parents was at the hospital with Greg, while the other stayed home with the four younger kids. My parents tried to make it an adventure for the family, and at first it was fun to visit the hospital, work on art projects and eat snacks. He spent seven months having chemotherapy and had 10 inches of his tibia replaced. At twelve, I was at a tender age when you live for attention and nourishment. Call me immature, but I was jealous of Greg and all of the attention that he was receiving. People sent him packages and brought balloons. Everyone would ask how Greg was doing. I felt pushed aside and neglected. My existence felt second best to my older brother, I became irritable and lashed out at any chance I could. To be completely honest, I became the terror of the family. It took me three years to full to get over the rift that formed between Greg and me.
When I say that I didn’t understand what he was going through I mean that in every sense of the word. At that time in my life I had never had much physical pain; I had never even sprained an ankle. But three years after Greg’s cancer, I got a taste of what he went through. I was diagnosed with synovial chondromatosis in my right shoulder. Instead of producing synovial fluid in my shoulder joint, my body began to produce cartilage. A handful of tumors were in my joint which prevented me from lifting my arm without severe pain. I was a freshman and was planning on playing basketball for my high school. Suddenly basketball wasn’t an option. At first, I was almost happy to have the surgery. I was excited for all the attention that I was going to receive. In my mind it was going to be “my turn.”
My surgery was a one day ordeal; I went in the morning and left the hospital in the evening with a nerve block. The whole situation seemed pretty cut and dry to me, I wasn’t worried, but excited. When I woke up from the surgery everything seemed perfectly fine thanks to all the drugs. My youth leader visited me and brought me presents; things seemed to be going my way. At home there were balloons and I was elevated to celebrity status. I remember it was one o’clock in the morning when I woke up. The nerve block was wearing off. At first I thought that I was a tough girl and could handle it. Then the tingling began to grow and in a flash it was an unbearable, sheet grabbing, pain. My mom called the hospital and they informed us that I would just have to take my pills and wait for them to take effect. I didn’t fall asleep for seven hours, and the entire time was spent in absolute agony. This was my first experience with true pain, and suddenly my surgery seemed less glamorous.
The cards, balloons and candy started rolling in as expected. At first I gloried in it, after all this is what I had been dreaming about since Greg had his treatment. I didn’t have to go to school and I got to lie around all day on the couch and watch Netflix. Very quickly the magic of these luxuries wore off, and I began to view it more as being imprisoned on the couch. I began to pay more attention to my siblings because I knew how they would be feeling. I started trying to patch together my relationship with Greg, who was away at college. This experience matured and aged me.
Within months of my surgery, my 17 year old sister, Jackie, was diagnosed with a large tumor in her spine. This would be her first surgery and I could tell that she was excited. All of the attention would be hers and I have to admit that this time, I was glad. People were still asking about my shoulder and I was relieved to have the attention drawn away from me. She had her surgery which involved a long recovery; and I found myself enjoying giving her all of the attention that I could. The maple syrup wasn’t so deep, or so sticky as it was before. I was learning that it is better to give than to get.
In March of 2014 while Jackie was still recovering, they looked more closely at a spot in my brain and discovered that there was a tumor which needed to be removed. This time around I was more scared. The family was in the midst of emotions from Jackie’s cancer and major surgery and I felt like I was just adding to the mayhem. Also, brain surgery sounded far more frightening. What long term affects would it have? The doctor explained that my peripheral vision may be damaged in my right eye and there was always the possibility of death. On the day after my surgery, I woke up in ICU to hear the news that they had missed my tumor and I would have to return to the operating room. This was terrible, but I am blessed because aside from being sensitive to loud noises for a short period of time, there weren’t any major side effects of the surgery. Almost a year later, the only lasting effect is that on the right side of my head where they shaved, a clump of short hair finds its way of poking out of a ponytail. I received more than my share of thoughtful attention, and this time it all made me think of how I would like to be on the other end. I think that for the rest of my life I will enjoy finding ways to help children who are suffering.
It’s now 2015 and Greg is back in the hospital for his second battle with cancer. This time he is not at home, but being treated in Utah so that he can try to remain in college. I have to give him my love and support long-distance. In return, he continues to set an example to everyone about how to be strong and positive. My family members and I are now seasoned veterans of cancer and we know how to face the foe and prevail. We made that choice, and I am glad that we did. The maple syrup has become sweet.