Susan Yarad is a Valerie Fund mom who knows about handling stress and anxiety. She tells the story of her family's own battle with cancer and how the lessons learned might be the key to keeping steady during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the last week, as our family has coped with the disruptions, restrictions, and anxiety the global pandemic has wrought, guess who has been our rock? My 17-year-old daughter. She is calm, kind, helpful, and reassuring to everyone. “Don’t worry Mom, we’ll get through this,” she says as I Zoom, call, and email endlessly, trying to keep my arts organization functioning. “How can I help?” she offers. “Guess what I did with my time today, Mom? I got my chemistry grade up to an A and researched more colleges.”
This is the same daughter who, just three years ago found out she had stage 4B Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the middle of 8th grade. When she received this diagnosis, we all began an unimaginable journey that has been filled with unexpected twists and turns … and silver linings.
A parent dreads the thought of hearing the four words, “your child has cancer” but that’s not the way it really happened for me. Instead, “your daughter has a large mediastinal mass consistent with cancer” was delivered by an intern at 4 AM in an empty hospital waiting room. In that moment, the impact of his declaration winded me in a way I had never experienced. “Mediastinal” was not a word I had heard before. But I had several hours, very much alone, to Google the definition and all the horrible possibilities before anyone else was awake or oncologists would arrive. I had imagined news like that would be delivered around a conference room table, with experts presenting a plan; not when you are completely alone and haven’t slept in 24 hours. In the days and weeks to follow, I found out that the process of obtaining an exact cancer diagnosis is much more nuanced.
Over twelve-days inpatient, we received a definitive diagnosis, she qualified for a clinical trial for a drug not yet approved for children and treatment began. Five rounds of chemo; one week on, two weeks off. I shaved her head in a hospital room with clippers one of my best friends bought at CVS. Again, I had imagined that “someone” does those things. The someone turned out to be me, when she just couldn’t bear the feeling of her hair falling out another minute. “Mom, please just shave my head now.” It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I felt like my heart broke along a different fault line almost every day, month after month. Blood transfusions, injections, nausea, hours of Netflix, support from old and new friends, doctors and nurses who became family instantly; then to finish, two weeks of radiation, every day, at the exact same time of day, to fully conquer that mediastinal mass whose ominous presence started it all. The longest six months of my life have now faded into a more comfortable blur.
Then it was “over,” and she was in remission. But soon I found out that pediatric cancer doesn’t end so tidily. My daughter was faced with new challenges: regaining lost academic ground only to find more gaps; walking into her freshman year of high school bald; anxiety about relapse that appears out of nowhere once the high of being well again fades; learning that it really would be best to harvest eggs at the tender age of fifteen. It doesn’t feel over when you watch your child learn to give herself hormone shots in the belly (usually with a smile) every twelve hours in hopes of a someday baby.
I sat across from a very wise man about a year ago, in tears, worried about the hardships my beautiful teenager has had to endure, and he told me that the resilience she was building would pay off in unimaginable ways in the future; that some of the strongest and most successful people he knew had faced great trials early in life. It sounded very encouraging, but the shadow cast by the dark cloud above made it hard to really believe him. But here is the strange and wonderful truth that has emerged over the last seven days: he was absolutely right.
We can all learn lessons about resiliency during this crisis from a little girl who turned into a strong young woman over the last three difficult years. Comfort rarely builds character. Trying times give us perspective. And at the end of it all, I suspect that if we use our time wisely and invest in our communities, relationships, and organizations, we will all be wiser and stronger on the other side. My daughter, and every brave child and parent I met along this journey who know how to fight through extraordinarily hard circumstances, are a beacon of hope to us all.