I first met Sammie three weeks after I lost Nick. We had planned a fundraiser with the Mayo, Romano, and Sagnelli families at the 99 Restaurant. Nick was excited to get involved and give back. Then he suddenly passed. I was numb and in pain. When I walked through the door, I saw this darling little girl with tight brown curls circling her round face. She had happy eyes, and we connected from that day forward.
I have been through a lot with Sammie and have seen her ups and downs. My husband and I just brought Stephen back to college yesterday, and I have to admit, I was very sad and need a day or two to get myself back together. Plus, I think of Nick and the fact that he will never go to college.
So I wanted to focus on a survivor who would now be attending college, and I thought of Sammie, in addition to so many others who I will feature soon. Sammie wrote her thoughts about what we need to know about children with cancer and what gives her hope. It was so well-written and honest that I’m including her words.
Janine: What do you want people to know about children battling cancer?
Sammie: I want people to understand that the children who battle cancer, can and (God willing) do survive. I understand we often hear about children passing away and dying from cancer, and I’m hopeful those statistics will change for the better in the future. But we need to change our expectations of what a childhood cancer diagnosis means and stop associating it with death and sickness. We need to change our expectations of what a childhood cancer survivor looks like.
I was a child who survived cancer, became healthy again, returned to sports, began attending school again, whose hair grew back, graduated high school, and now will be attending college. Often friends and teachers are shocked hearing that I am a childhood cancer survivor. I am a very talkative and an extroverted person. When people find out they will make comments like, “I would have never known you are …,” their sentence trails off, but I know what they mean. They are surprised that I’m “normal.” To be fair, no one would know I survived cancer when I was 9 years old. I don’t walk around with an “I had Cancer” t-shirt. I feel like they expect a really introverted, quiet, sort of mysterious person as oppose to a happy and bubbly one. It’s important to understand that every survivor wears their trauma differently.
I understand my previous illness may be unknown to a stranger or at a first glance. But I am more than my illness. It does not define me. I wish people would really understand that childhood cancer survivors, or even fighters, are so much more than their illness. So much is constantly changing in a child’s life, and cancer is something they will move on from. I wish more people would know that ‘cancer kids’ have the possibility of returning to “normal” life and planning for a future.
Another incredibly important thing I wish people knew about children who survive cancer is that the pain isn’t “less” because it happened to a person when they were younger. It has to be understood that the childhood of a childhood cancer survivor is much different than someone who didn’t have cancer. I’ve discussed this with a therapist and the best way to describe it is comparing it to a tree. Imagine a full grown tree. The tree represents your entire life. The bottom or roots of the tree is where you started growing or your youngest age. As you get older you move up the tree. The earlier trauma happens in a person’s life the more it affects how the tree grows, or how you shape your life and the person you become. Because cancer happens to a person as a child does not mean it changes them “less” than an adult who survives cancer. It actually affects them and who they are as a person more so. And because I get asked this question a lot, yes I do remember my cancer, chemo, and surgeries. I for the most part I remember everything I haven’t already suppressed.
Janine: What give you hope/support to get through each day?
Sammie: At times it can be either really difficult or incredibly easy to find hope to get through the day. There are days I feel empowered and strengthened because I overcame my illness. I feel like I can do or be anything I want. On those days I feel like I am on top of the world, and on other days it feels like the world is on top of me.
I do suffer from PTSD as a result of my cancer. On some days it feels crushing, impossible, and confusing. It is very easy to get stuck on pointless questions of “Why? How? What?” Some days you have no choice but to sit with your thoughts and feel the pain all over again in order to let it go for the moment. Whenever I go for a checkup or a routine scan, anxiety usually accompanies it because I fear my illness returning. If I’m having a bad day I’ll calmly tell myself, “Sammie… You have air in your lungs and your heart is beating.. .You are alive… Cancer may have taken things from you, but you have today… and tomorrow… and the rest of your life….”
Although some days are nasty and feel unbearable, I take comfort in knowing I am incredibly strong. I find hope in the fact that I survived, and my struggles have made me incredibly tough and resilient. I have much more to live for, and I know I am capable of more than I currently believe.
Although my life was completely changed by surviving cancer, I find hope in knowing that everything I’ve been through is all in God’s plan for me. Things were meant to be this way and happen the way they did. I have hope in knowing I can love myself despite the physical and emotional scars cancer gave me. I used my cancer to make myself more passionate, ambitious, and determined in pursuit of my goals.
I guess you could say my biggest hope comes from the fact that I am alive.
Angelina Jolie announced that she took a radical step to prevent breast cancer by having a double mastectomy in February 2013. She carries a “faulty” gene BRCA1 which sharply increases her chance of breast cancer by 87% and ovarian cancer by 50%. Her own mother died of cancer at age 56. Her article is below.
In the world of cancer, there is so little that you do have control over. When you are diagnosed, you are told what drugs you have to take, surgeries needed to be done, and what in your life needs to be changed. For a child it can mean complete separation from all that is normal and comforting.
When it comes to breast cancer, many women have the choice to remove one or more breasts when diagnosed. What stops them from doing this? Society’s views of women can play a major role on how breasts are perceived. Are we more or less feminine because we have small or large breasts, one breast or none? I know women very close to me (she knows who she is) who decided to get one breast removed because of a cancer diagnosis. Upon careful research she made the decision to have her second breast removed so that she wouldn’t have to deal with the harmful side effects of taking Tamoxifen, which can increase the chance of ovarian cancer. She took preventative measures to ensure her cancer didn’t return. She is beautiful, strong, and well loved.
But still she worried. What were her chances of getting ovarian cancer? For piece of mind she took the same test as Angelina Jolie which turned out negative. But further measures can still be taken. Eating organic and local foods, regular exercise, keeping stress to a minimum, lots of laughter, and positive connections to family and friends. We can live our lives worrying that we are going to get cancer because multiple people in our family have had it, but the stress of that fear can cause the cancer!
Your preventative methods are entirely up to you. Angelina Jolie proves to us that we can be empowered to make our own decisions and that a woman’s femininity and strength are reflected in her soul, not her body.
What measures have you taken or would you take to prevent cancer?