Childhood cancer— two words you never think will be a part of your family. At least I never thought they would be until my niece was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma at 10 years old. I will never forget that day.
It was the first day of summer break, and my sister and I took the kids to the beach. Yvonne hadn’t been feeling well for a few months now, but she was always a trooper and never wanted to miss out on anything. Doctors had been trying to figure out what was wrong with Yvonne for a couple of months. On my sister’s way home she got a call from the doctor with a diagnosis. Because her kids were in the car with her, she couldn’t react, she couldn’t call anyone— she had to keep it together. That’s when I got the text, “it’s HODGKINS.”
I vividly remember throwing the phone down, shutting myself in the bathroom, out of earshot from my kids and totally breaking down. Why Yvonne? Why a child? Yvonne has always been a pillar of strength for my family.
She was the first grandchild, born just months after my mom lost a 20-year battle with aplastic anemia and my mom’s namesake. She gave us joy when we were in the depths of sorrow. Everyone fell in love with little Yvonne. She was wise beyond her years and stubborn as can be. Her strength was dumbfounding at times.
The day of her diagnosis she had her first dance recital. She got up on that stage, put on a smile and nailed it. I have never shed so many tears as I did in the audience that night. So many emotions came over me: pride, love, empathy and sheer terror.
My sister is my best friend. My niece is like my own daughter. I have never felt so helpless. A good friend of mine suggested I immediately begin to gather medical records, a task that would just be too overwhelming for my sister to do on top of everything else. I was desperate to DO something and gladly took the advice.
During treatment, my niece no longer reached out for my lap. She just wanted mom, understandably. So I tried to make myself useful in other ways. Yvonne needed shots at home to boost her white blood cell production. My sister was willing to give them, but it was just one more painful thing for her to do, so I offered. There was nothing fun about it, but to know I took a tiny bit of burden off my sister’s shoulders meant everything to me.
I will also never forget the day my daughter asked if I was going to go give Yvonne her shot that day and I told her, “No, Yvonne is done with those.” My then 3-year-old’s eyes lit up and she started running in circles yelling, “Yvonne is done with shots! Yvonne doesn’t have cancer anymore!” over and over again. Even a 3-year-old understood the destruction of this disease.
My family is one of the lucky ones, at least in the world of childhood cancer. Yvonne is cancer free.
Childhood cancer introduced me to a world full of resilient, inspirational children— children that even on their worst days, days some of us cannot even imagine, still manage to find joy in the simple things. Don’t get me wrong, I would give anything to not have my niece have had this horrific disease, to spare her the needle pokes and biopsies, the hospital stays, the pain, the hair loss, the horrible side effects like mucositis, not to mention whatever long-term side effects she will have to deal with, and allow her to go to school like her other sixth grade classmates.
But the disease introduced me to a world of the bravest, strongest people I will ever meet. I decided that if I could help these kids, I had to do it.
Childhood cancer gave me a purpose. Within a year, I enrolled in nursing school. I am currently an RN at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where Yvonne was treated, and working most of my shifts on the Bone Marrow Transplant floor.
Being a nurse is hard, especially one who takes care of the sickest of the sick kids, but at the end of my shift, I get to go home— my patients and their families often do not. This is something I try to remind myself of every day, especially during a trying shift. One of the most important things I have learned is that these children are not their diagnosis.
Yes, they probably can name more medications than some of us will see in our lifetime and tell us how to give them, but they really just want to be treated like any healthy child. These kids keep me in check.
They have taught me patience, strength, empathy, compassion, courage, gratitude and to live in the moment. It is a huge privilege to be their nurse.
Written by Angie Weber
Angie Weber graduated from Saint Catherine University in 2016. She is currently working as an RN at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. Yvonne will be 16 in July and is now four years cancer free.