Starting in 2006, Cancer Pathways of Seattle, Washington started a unique program called Cancer Unwrapped Writing Contest. This program uses the power of writing to allow the children of families undergoing cancer treatment the opportunity to write about their own emotions and experiences. Ten years later, this writing contest is still successfully helping families cope with pain and the stress of cancer. We want to thank Anna Gottlieb of Cancer Pathways for sharing some of these heartfelt stories with us.
This is My Story – By Cameron Ashton
Every day I walk past a sign hanging in the hallway next to the cafeteria. It’s been there, tacked up between two sets of lockers, since the beginning of the school year. Painted in bold white letters on a sheet of black butcher paper, the message is short and to the point: CANCER
It has been almost a year since my mom was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. I don’t remember much about the moment when my family sat down last Mother’s Day and had the long and difficult discussion that marked our plunge into the unknown. A hole was gouged in my heart that day, a gaping expanse of fear, confusion, anxiety, and grief that hasn’t yet been completely filled.
Metastasis and lymph nodes had started the day as flashcards in my biology notebook, but became a painfully casual part of my vocabulary by the week’s end.
Being hit head-on by the truth of life’s unpredictability is a curious thing. Until that point, my overwhelming onslaught of honors classes had been the focal point of my existence. My mother’s diagnosis served as a reality check that allowed me to see that textbooks and transcripts are unimaginably insignificant when it comes to the ones we love, but it also left me drowning in a veritable flood of unidentifiable emotions. The world around me had shattered, and my heart was breaking along with it.
This is my story how I see it, compiled of fragments of good, bad, waking up every morning with an impossibly heavy heart, begging God for the strength to face another day. School felt irrelevant and my friends felt distracting, but still I smiled a smile that felt so tight that I thought my face would snap. Standing on the deck with my sisters, watching my dad, razor and scissors in hand, cut through the final strands of my mom’s hair. The scraps fluttered away with the breeze, and part of us feeling physical pain at the sight of my mom’s exhausted and weak condition.
Having her call the home phone from her bedroom to request a glass of water, which must always have a bendy straw (the straight ones are hard to drink from while lying down) and never any ice (she’d developed an aversion at her first round of chemo). Walking through the door after school to find a different relative standing in the kitchen, putting our dishes away on the wrong shelves. It was a comfort to know that our family was so strong, often flying in at absurdly late hours to mop the floor, drive my sisters to school, and taking an emergency midnight drive to the pharmacy with my dad.
It was raining, but we kept the convertible top down anyways. Giggling with my sisters as we modeled hats and scarves to take home from the store as a surprise for our mom. Cringing as “chemo” and “surgery” appeared as the most frequently-used words on my phone, but opening countless messages from concerned friends and family and getting texts from a best friend who knows when to say the right thing and when to say nothing at all.
Waking up one morning to learn that my mom had gone to the hospital in the middle of the night and being filled with a sense of fear that even texted jokes about hospital food couldn’t quell. Answering the door for friends and neighbors toting meals. There’s a reason that lasagna is the clichéd “Get Well Soon!” meal. Clenching my teeth as my mom received injections in the stomach every morning and night for two months and looking at the endless row of prescription bottles lining the bathroom. Spending summer vacation at home every single day, longing for a true home-cooked meal as I lost touch with my friends and never really regained it with some of them.
Witnessing a tight-knit hospital community, as nurses in Friday Seahawks jerseys conversed with chemotherapy patients. I put a piece in the puzzle that sat on the waiting-room table while my mom was having radiation treatment and felt like I was a part of it. Taking nightly walks with my mom as she regained her strength, watching the summer sun fade in the sky and hearing nothing but our scuffing footsteps walking in synchrony.
Lingering in the no-man’s-land between chatting adults and shrieking children at a barbeque my mom couldn’t attend. The hostess showed me a row of family photos and told me her mother’s story with tears in her eyes. My bursting heart and choking throat prevented me from ever saying thank you, but I looked at her and knew I didn’t have to. Being the recipient of so many prayers that I felt more blessed than I have in my entire life.
This is my story. This is what has almost filled the gash in my heart and made me whole again. My life is covered in the fingerprints of people who have reached out to my family and left an everlasting impact. This feeling of unity and love has taken the broken fragments of my former life and rearranged them into something new and flawed, and somehow it seems so much more beautiful than before.