Image courtesy of Michelle Fritsch
I often find the need to explain how and why I work with children with cancer and their families. At a party, in the grocery store, at a conference, strangers will ask, “What do you do?” I explain that I work with children with cancer and their families. The next statement is always “I don’t know how you do that, I couldn’t do it.” Invariably, I explain my ability and frankly my desire to stay in this field.
I consistently reply that I love working with these families. Period. Easy to state, but hard to explain. Children are children, no matter the circumstance. They want to run, play, eat, stay up late, defy gravity and break rules. Watching these kids endure treatments, but continue to race down the hospital corridor on a tricycle while pulling an IV pole with chemo infusing is awe inspiring. Watching friends, churches and community members rally around the families – providing parking tokens, blankets, groceries and birthday gifts is heartwarming. I also participate in Camp Periwinkle, our camp for kids with cancer and their siblings, and witness monumental acts of courage and bravery each and every camp. Kids fresh from brain surgery climbing the rock wall, blind children riding bikes, and kids connecting with someone who endured something similar to them are all examples of the everyday heroes I see.
Recently, I was asked by a family I met to present their daughter with her high school ring. The patient called and explained that at school they told the students to choose a person who has inspired you, someone you respect or a mentor to give you this ring at the ceremony. She asked ME to do this honor. I was beyond honored to be the person to share in this ceremony. She is one of the heroes I encounter on a daily basis. She has significant mobility issues and happened to be in the cabin where I was a counselor a few years ago. She arrived shy and uncertain. She left confident, radiant and surrounded by new friends. She challenged herself to attempt all the activities. She conquered numerous feats throughout the week, including the rock wall and zip line. Her parents still attribute her newfound confidence and passion to the camp. They reported camp gave her two important things:
1. A can-do attitude
Camp Periwinkle is all about what you can do as opposed to what you can’t do! The programs and activities are considered universal. This means regardless of your ability or your age, you can conquer almost everything and then brag about your accomplishments when you go home. At camp, you are surrounded by people who have been affected by cancer in some way, so everyone understands.
Friendships are important to teens with serious illnesses, just as they are to teens without any medical complications. However, the significance of the friendships with this population is exceptionally important. Why is the friendship component different? Some of the kids are not able to attend school due to their treatments. Others are singled out due to their appearance (chemotherapy and steroids have effects on how you look). Additionally, well-intentioned adults and peers tend to focus on the teen’s illness rather than who they are as a person.
So, to say I was honored to present this young lady, who was told she may never graduate from high school with her class ring, is quite the understatement. I was shocked and had this overwhelming feeling of “I am not worthy.” It was so incredibly special. I have received honors in my professional career, but this honor ranks high on my list of achievements.
The world is a better place because of the families, we in the cancer world, encounter each and every day. So, by the time I am done answering the question, “What do you do?” many people are ready to donate water, wigs, make up and a car if need be. I have a passion for my job because of the families we serve. Each family I meet, each child I counsel, leaves a mark on my soul. I think I speak for all the medical professionals, clinic staff, administration, housekeepers, anyone touched by these remarkable families, that we do our jobs because we love children – all children. And we do get as much out of the profession, if not more, than we put into it.