When the operation was over, the doctors pulled us aside, away from the other people in the recovery room. I sensed something awful was about to take place. I moved in slow motion. Sounds became amplified. My wife's hand became cold and rigid against mine. We listened to the doctors, thanked them for their help and concern and then fell apart as our worst fears became a reality.
Heather had cancer.The vicious nature of childhood cancer is something most people understand only in the abstract. They've seen some TV shows and movies, read a few articles in magazines, but that's as far as they go. It's just too uncomfortable a subject to think about.
Cancer becomes concrete only when you walk the floors of a cancer ward and see small, innocent children hobble about with pain and bewilderment in their eyes or when you hear their cries of terror from behind doors that are better left closed.
When we told Heather she had cancer we were not sure what to expect. Adults usually break down and cry. Heather didn't. Nor do most children, my wife, Sandy, and I learned. They don't know what having cancer means. However, they quickly learn.
Heather had a tumor in her third lumbar vertebra, which ate through the vertebra, turning it into an eggshell-like structure. Eventually the shell cracked open, releasing all the pain that would accompany a broken back. The tumor was first diagnosed as a non-lymphoblastic lymphoma, a cancer with a 60 percent cure rate. Then the doctors changed their minds. They decided it was a Ewing's sarcoma, which has an even lower rate of cure. Then they changed their minds again and said they weren't sure what it was.
Heather was given an 18-month chemotherapy schedule that required her to go to Primary Children's Medical Center every two weeks for treatment. She also had extensive radiation therapy daily for six weeks.
At first the most difficult thing for her to adjust to, being a lovely, vibrant 6-year-old girl, was the loss of her gorgeous, long blond hair. When my wife was combing Heather's hair a couple of weeks after her first chemo session, a hunk of hair the size of a man's fist came out. Sandy stared at the hair in disbelief, amazed at the quantity and suddenness. When Heather turned around and saw the hair she began to cry.
By the sixth week, Heather was pulling out the remainder of her hair and laughing about it. Children have such resilience.
Another side effect of the chemotherapy is nausea.
When the caustic cancer-fighting chemicals enter the bloodstream, they damage every cell they contact. However, they are most effective against cells that grow rapidly _ cancer cells. Unfortunately, the cells that line the scalp and the stomach are also rapid-growing cells. To watch Heather vomit every ten minutes for hours on end is something Sandy and I have come to accept with stoic patience _ at least on the outside. Deep inside our souls, we ache as we watch Heather endure the continuous stomach convulsions until they finally subside and leave her almost lifeless with exhaustion.
Fortunately, Heather doesn't have to go through all this alone. Friends and neighbors have been and still are very supportive. They continually bring Heather goodies, balloons, cards and letters. Grandparents dote on her. I believe it is almost as hard for them to watch their little granddaughter go through this as it is for Sandy and me.
Heather's brothers and sisters are her champions. They make sure no one makes fun of her or treats her badly. They accept her as she is and continually pray for her deliverance from the disease that makes her so sad and so sick.
Heather receives her chemotherapy every other Wednesday at Primary Children's Oncology Clinic. It's a touching scene to watch the doctors and nurses treat the children. Such patience, love and caring I have rarely witnessed.
When the nurses bring in the medicine to begin Heather's treatment, they spend as much time as is necessary to allow her to get emotionally ready. Many times Heather becomes fearful and reticent for she knows what will follow the injections. She is weary of it all. But with patience and the help of Sandy and me, they eventually administer the drugs.
It's hard to describe to someone who has not gone through this type of ordeal what it can be like. Occasionally, while with Heather at the clinic, I'll catch parents studying their child. There's a gentle glint behind their eyes telling me that if there were any other way to save this child they would do it. There is none, however, so they have to subject their child to the foul rigors of chemotherapy.
I marvel at the strength of these parents, for although they will not go home and vomit till their heads loll in weakness, every one of them will watch his little girl do this and wish with all his heart that he could take her place.