An Open Letter To Anyone Who Cares To Read It:
My name is Kassie. I am twenty-three years old. Like many around my age, I graduated from college this past year, and like even more people my age, I spend almost all of my time working an ungodly amount of hours at my first full-time, salary paid job (a job which I absolutely adore, by the way). When I do have a day off, I enjoy hanging out with family and friends, hiking, watching movies, and catching up on errands and laundry (and sleep!); in a lot of ways I guess you could say that I’m pretty much like every other kid (adult?) my age. I had a great childhood, I have two incredibly loving, strong, and supportive families, and I have a little brother who was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of childhood cancer called Synovial Sarcoma when he was fifteen years old. It’s that last bit, the having a brother with childhood cancer bit, that has shaped me the most as a human being and made me who I am today-a strong and determined young woman who passionately advocates for children with cancer and works with a non-profit organization with the goal of funding life-saving research and clinical trials to ultimately find a cure for cancer and save the lives of cancers youngest and most vulnerable victims: children.
August 31, 2010: I was a sophomore at Arizona State University and had just gotten out of my last class of the day. My best friend Ann had just been diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer two weeks prior. I pulled out my cell phone as I walked across campus to get to my car. There was a text message from my dad that consisted of just seven words, “I need you to call me, ASAP”. An overwhelming feeling of dread filled me. I called him and he answered almost instantly. My dad’s voice was shaking. Was he crying? Was he mad? What was that sound in his voice? My dad proceeded to tell me that my grandma had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. He explained that even though it was scary they thought they had caught it early and she would get surgery and then chemo and the chances that she would beat this were good. I felt my stomach drop and told my dad how sorry I was. I automatically went to the positive, “So she has a good chance of being okay, right? She can make this. I know it.” But my dad didn’t answer my question. Instead he drew in a shaky breath and proceeded to tell me that there was more. It was my brother, Coleman. He had cancer too. Disbelief and shock hit me in the gut so hard I literally felt as if I’d had the wind knocked out of me. I do not remember the rest of the conversation I had on the phone with my dad that day. I just remember a tall kid with brown hair and sunglasses looking at me like I was crazy as I stumbled into the gravel and managed to find my balance by grabbing the nearest palm tree. To this day I find it odd that I remember exactly where I was, near the end of Palm Walk right by the SRC Fields on campus yet I can’t remember a single word my dad had said after telling me that my little brother had just been diagnosed with cancer. All I remember after that was being so dizzy that walking felt dangerous. I do not remember the drive home to my apartment, I just remember walking up the stairs to my complex, opening the door and barely managing to tell my best friend and roommate, Hannah, the news before collapsing into her arms in heaving, uncontrollable sobs. I may have been twenty years old but my best friend sat on the ground holding me in her lap as if I were a child. I will never forget that day.
Today-Sunday, August 17, 2014: In just fourteen short days, it will be exactly four years since my brother’s initial diagnosis. A lot has happened in those almost four years. I lost my best friend Ann to the terrible monster that is cancer. I learned about and was adopted into an entire community of families with children who were battling cancer. I changed my major so that I could go on to help children and their families understand their child’s diagnosis and be a shoulder to lean on and resource to help them navigate through the absolute uncertainty that is childhood cancer. I forged an even deeper bond with my little brother who never ceased to amaze me at how selfless, giving, hopeful, and inspiring he could be. I did a lot of research on my brother’s cancer as well as childhood cancer in general. I found a blog written by a mom whose son was going through treatment for cancer and through her words found someone else in this world that understood my complicated feelings and experiences in this cancer journey and helped me to find my own voice and become a huge advocate for childhood cancer. I began to raise money, attend events, and eventually work with The Ronan Thompson Foundation to make meaningful change in this world. I had a few birthdays. I sat with my brother one night as he told me he was roommates with a little boy in the hospital who was also going through chemotherapy and that he would give his life if it meant that little three-year old could survive his battle because “at least I’ve lived fifteen years and that’s a lot more than three”. I connected with the mom of Ronan Thompson, the woman behind the blog that had given me a voice when I was at a loss for words and helped me to find the courage to speak my mind on behalf of the kids who were suffering, even if that meant having people disregard me or tell me that what I had to say was too sad to be talked about. I became best friends with this woman, and only after meeting her for the first time did we realize that my little brother and her son had been roommates at Phoenix Children’s Hospital when they were receiving chemotherapy. I mourned the loss of a little boy with sparkly blue eyes that I had never met, yet had changed my life forever. I watched Taylor Swift sing her brand new song, Ronan, on the Stand Up To Cancer Telethon with Ronan’s family and friends as we all watched in awe with silent tears pouring down our faces. I attended two (soon to be three) Gold Parties in September to raise money for funding and research for new treatments for Neuroblastoma. I watched my brother’s hair come back, I watched him go back to playing sports and attending school and being a normal teenager while thanking the universe for every single second I had with my brother, healthy and happy. I watched my brother graduate from high school with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed with gratitude to witness this milestone when so many kids with cancer don’t make it. I graduated college and watched my brother go off to his first year of college. I laughed. I cried. I hiked. I ran two half marathons with no training to honor Ronan, my brother, and to raise money for Ronan’s foundation. I held my breath every time my brother went to the hospital to get scans to make sure his cancer stayed away, and I had my breath knocked out of me for the second time when after almost three years cancer free, scans came back with news that it was back again.
Like I said, a lot has happened in those almost four years. Maybe the most important thing that has happened is that I have witnessed the impact that one person can have on the world around her when she is brave and bold enough to stand up and speak out about the atrocities going on around her each and every day that everyone else is too scared, intimidated, or devastated to talk about. I have learned that when one person is brave enough to stand up in the face of adversity and shine, it subconsciously gives others the permission and power to do the same. I have come to know what it is like to have a person you’ve never met before completely change your life. I have also come to know what it is like to have someone tell you that your compassion, dedication, and courage has changed their life forever. I have watched the childhood cancer community that I was adopted into four years ago evolve and change, becoming more cohesive, recognized, and powerful and I have watched our community use that power to positively and passionately enact change that had lead us in the right direction, on a path that leads to a future where children getting cancer is only something you read about in history books. We have a long road ahead but there is power in the baby steps we have made towards our goal. There is so much work yet to be done but I can promise you we are not losing steam; we are only gaining momentum. Our biggest roadblock is in a lack of understanding and awareness that childhood cancer is not a rarity. 46 children are diagnosed with cancer every single day, and seven children will die from cancer today alone. Another obstacle we as a community face is that the general public finds childhood cancer too tragic a topic to broach meaningfully, let alone superficially.
While I will not speak for the childhood community as a whole, I can speak for myself, as the sister of a cancer fighter. All I want is to turn around the odds for kids fighting cancer. I want our society to finally decide that although talking about childhood cancer is extremely sad, devastating, and sometimes uncomfortable, we are more horrified and uncomfortable with the fact that thousands upon thousands of kids are dying from this disease and because of this we decide to shed light on this topic and force ourselves to ask the hard questions and demand answers and better funding for our kids. I never want another family to have a doctor tell them their child has cancer. I never want another parent to watch their child die in their arms. I want to fight for a world where children make it out of childhood alive. I want my little brother to be given the chance to get better and stay better, to know and experience all the many ages and stages of life, I want him to get a full and long lifetime on this earth.
The childhood cancer community I belong to is a passionate, dedicated, strong-willed, and extremely vocal one. But one thing we are not is violent, malicious, or ill wishing. I can promise you that any person who has ever loved someone with cancer is not capable of wishing the same on any other person, ever. I could not and would not wish cancer on anyone, no matter who they were or what they have done and the thought alone makes me feel sick to my stomach. The individuals I have met in this community of people brought together by cancer are some of the kindest, most compassionate, awe-inspiring, absolutely amazing human beings I have ever encountered. They are the kind of human beings that give me hope for a brighter future not just for our kids but also for the world in general. While we will not give up on what we are passionate about and have more fight and will power in us than any other group of people I’ve ever known, we do not use that fight and will power to tear others down, make threats, or tarnish others reputations. To do so is not in our nature and it is not in any way related to our ultimate mission: to find a cure to the many different cancers that afflict children and stop other families from feeling the pain that we have. Our goal, our fight, our mission has always been and always will be to find a cure to the merciless disease that continues to kills our sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers. It has always been about our kids, and to make it about anything other than that is something we will not stand for. Whether childhood cancer has affected you personally or not, I ask you, I beg of you, to advocate for our community in a way that your own child would be proud of. It is indeed possible to fight for our kids with passion, spice, and determination and also do so gracefully and in a way that is not malicious or harmful to others. I want our community to be known for the leaps and bounds we made in the research and treatment of childhood cancer and ultimately for curing childhood cancer. We are a group of people who despite unimaginable tragedy continue to come together, support one another, and lift each other up to make meaningful and lasting change in this world and overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. We are not the bullies that were addressed in the Empire State Building’s press release today, and if you have joined our community fight with the intention of being malicious and threatening, our cause is not one we need or want you representing.
Each and every day I will live with love, compassion, and strength. I will be a voice for the voiceless and I will represent our children fiercely but with integrity, respect, and grace. Thank you to everyone who has helped us in our fight for a future where childhood cancer does not exist. Thank you to the childhood cancer community that embraced me from the day of my brother’s diagnosis four years ago. Thank you to the incredible people I have met during this journey that have inspired, strengthened and loved me along the way. Empire State Building, we are not the bullies you addressed today in your statement. We are not the abusive and ill wishing “childhood cancer advocates” you talked about. While our fight to light up the Empire State Building in Gold for Childhood Cancer Awareness month is far from over, our plan of attack will never include threatening, demoralizing, or attacking any human being, whether they choose to help us shine a much needed light on the world of childhood cancer or not.