What Cancer Cannot Do

October 20, 2011

There is a saying that there are many things that cancer cannot do. It cannot cripple love, shatter hope, kill friendship, erode the spirit, take away faith, silence courage, destroy peace, suppress memories, or conquer the soul. I have found these things to be true.
It was in June of my 7th grade year, just as we were all looking forward to the freedom of summer in the coming weeks, that I was first diagnosed with leukemia. There had been signs, for instance, the bruises and the blood when I brushed my teeth. Those had seemed like such minor things. After all, what were a few unidentified bruises in someone as active as I was? I was always running around with my friends and I had just successfully finished my first year in gymnastics on the varsity team. I had good grades, everything was going great.
Then my mom started noticing the bruises. She is a nurse and she immediately thought the worst. I scoffed at the idea of going to the doctor. It was silly. She was just being paranoid from seeing too many cases in the E.R. She prevailed, however, and we went.
From the blood sample, they found that my platelets, or the blood cells that clot to prevent bleeding, were very low. They didn’t suspect anything serious. It looked like a certain condition that could be treated overnight with an I.V. I would have to go to Children’s Hospital in Seattle for the treatment.
I was not very happy about this. I had never had an I.V. It sounded bad. On top of this, I hated hospitals. How was I going to spend a whole night in one? I comforted myself with the thought of spending the next day in Seattle. I never would have imagined that I wouldn’t leave the hospital again for two months.
When we first arrived at the hospital, they placed the I.V. and took their own blood sample just to confirm the diagnosis of the local doctor’s office. It wasn’t quite as bad as I expected. They gave us snacks and drinks and it was nice to just sit for a while together with my family.
Then a man walked into the room where we were waiting. His grim expression is still etched clearly in my mind. He said that they had found abnormal white blood cells, which almost always meant leukemia. My mom was bawling as he explained it to us. I was too stunned for anything. My throat was so thick I couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow. They talked about chemo. They said my hair would fall out. I wasn’t really understanding. My hair was long and blonde. I had been growing it out for years and it reached all the way down to my waist. The thought of cutting it was enough to make me cringe, but to fall out? Completely? Insanity. How could they expect me to do this? I remember going up the elevator to the room my parents and I would share that night, I.V. pole in tow. A lady escorted us. I don’t remember her face. I just remember that she was kind, and she was talking, but I couldn’t understand her. One thing that she said sprang out at me. She told us that there was a camp in the summer for people like me, who had cancer. Cancer? What?
None of us got any sleep that night. It is true that we shared our room with a screaming baby, but it wouldn’t have mattered. As I stared at the I.V. in my hand and the foam board taped to my arm to keep it straight, those words kept playing through my mind. It’s cancer. I have cancer.
The doctors wanted to start treatment immediately, so I stayed in the hospital and my parents brought the things I needed from home. I wasn’t allowed to go outside because my immune system was being knocked out. Just being in the outside air could give me a fungal infection. I wasn’t even allowed to leave the floor because they kept the area so controlled. I couldn’t believe I was supposed to spend my summer this way.
I got sick, couldn’t eat, and lost weight. However, during that time, I found out how many friends I really had. The people at my school put together a poster that they all signed, which I hung in my room. Then they raised enough money to bring me a new iPod. My three best friends and my teacher came and surprised me with it. One of my dad’s friends was able to get me a laptop. It was more that that though. It was how much people cared and the dear friends from my church who came to visit week after week. I was surrounded by love and truly blessed.
The cancer could not cripple love, it could not shatter hope, and it most certainly could not kill friendship.
After about seven months of treatment with week long breaks in between, we were finished. I had spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and my 13th birthday in the hospital but I had gotten through. For Thanksgiving, my grandparents cooked food and brought it over on hot bricks so we could eat it warm For Christmas, we brought over our fake mini tree for the room. I missed the most snow we had ever had a home, about 6 inches, but Seattle also received some snow, which I enjoyed from my window. For my birthday, all the nurses signed a poster and we celebrated from my room. Cancer cannot erode the spirit.
After everything was over, my life went back to normal; as close to normal as could be expected anyway. My hair grew back in, only now it was dark, curly, and short. I went to school and church. I had energy again. The only traces left were a scar from my line, basically an I.V. to my heart, and the doctor appointments to make sure that the cancer was still gone.
I was in the 10th grade when the cancer came back. It was a shock. I had been looking forward to having long hair for senior pictures in a few years. Not again!
This time I had to get radiation and chemo for a bone marrow transplant. We found, not one, but four perfect matches for the transplant. It was scheduled for March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day. I needed total body radiation and for me, this turned out to be much more difficult than the chemo, but luckily, also shorter. The transplant went well and I didn’t have too many rejection issues. It was hard to go through all of this and often humiliating. This time I was also missing out on my high school years. It just didn’t seem right.
During this time I relied heavily on God. My relationship with Him became so much sweeter and He gave me strength and peace. No, cancer cannot erode faith, silence courage or destroy peace.
The bone marrow transplant completely wiped out my immune system. I no longer had immunity to anything. Every cold or flu that I had caught, it was all gone. I had to start over. I had to get all of my shots again and miss my junior year of high school also. I was glad I didn’t have to miss my senior year, though. I continued with my school work and I kept my memories close. The cancer could not suppress them.
Now I’m back in school for my senior year. Some things have changed. It’s not the same. I haven’t bounced back like the first time. The bone marrow transplant and other consequences from the treatment still make me tired and fatigued, even a year later. They told me it would be hard. Many things would become more difficult. They said that I might just want to take it easy and realize that I’m not going to be capable of some things as I used to be.
As I’m afraid is sometimes the case, I didn’t quite believe them. I’m now taking half of my classes at college through the Running Start program and in high school I am taking all of the Advance Placement classes available for the courses I need. After missing so much, I am still on track to graduate with my class and am one of the top students in each of my courses, finishing my first college quarter with a 3.9 GPA. Working at a stable, riding horses in show jumping competitions, and volunteering at a rescue mission have been just a few of my extra activities. I am doing more now than ever before, not because it is easier but because I am stronger. I have a new determination and an appreciation for life and what really matters. I am so blessed to have discovered this early on and I believe that I can do more with my life now that I understand its value. Cancer has not conquered my soul.
There are many things that cancer cannot do. Yet ironically, there are many things that it has done for me. These are things that I would not trade, even to take it away. I have known true love and friendship, gained greater strength and faith, and I have learned to love life and to truly live it to the fullest. So in the end, what is won is of much greater worth than what was lost.
Rachel Binford