Childhood Cancer and Its Aftermath

by Jessie Brunner, 27, of Costa Mesa, who writes Orange Coast’s Intersection feature
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Cancer was a fairly obscure concept for me as a middle-schooler whose biggest worries were getting to class before the bell and navigating my first crush. Nor did I imagine the insidious disease was much on the minds of friends and family who saw me as a lively, wide-eyed 12-year-old.

Not until I could see the lump beneath my jeans did I finally reveal to my mom the tumor growing in my left groin. Surgery was hastily scheduled after the growth doubled in size in a few months. The tough façades my family and I had so carefully erected instantly crumbled, and the first of many tearful outbursts ensued.

No matter the terror I faced, it was surely worse for my parents. Later they told me how, riding in the elevator at what’s now called CHOC Children’s in Orange, they knew which parents were headed to the oncology ward just from their beleaguered faces.

Cancer is ruthless. Moments of shrill pain … the physical and emotional fatigue of spending several days in a hospital bed among a sea of sick children … the embarrassment of having a handsome nurse named Dan give me a sponge bath. But I turned out to be one of the lucky ones.

My extracted tumor ultimately was examined by a specialist in Michigan who identified it as a rare, malignant, soft-tissue cancer with a low rate of metastasis. One precautionary surgery later, I’m in my 15th year of remission. Yet with cancer, you’re never cured.

Doctors’ offices and hospitals still make me queasy. Fear easily trumps rationality. I struggle to reassure myself that a string of nauseating migraines is more likely hormonal than a harbinger of brain cancer, and that a hard bump in my thigh is not a tumor. Because my cancer is relatively unknown, physicians often are just as wary as I am. I’ve had more MRIs than a 27-year-old ought to—about a dozen scans over the years for various reasons, most recently for a bout of blurry vision.

Ailments inevitably arise, and you get through them because you know the only other options are dread or denial. I’ve stockpiled enough of my family’s steadfast support over the years to overcome those initial doubts. I still appreciate the mixtape my older sister made for me to play after I came out of surgery, how my dad “took care of” the hospital food I wouldn’t eat, the time my mom spent braiding my hair to stave off bed-rest tangles, and her efforts to ensure my stuffed animal Fritz, above, was always with me. Yet I can hardly repay them for what I put them through. No matter how much time passes, even a minor blip in my health commands the terrible memories to the surface.

My sister recalls a day when I asked her, rather coolly, if I were going to die. Though I didn’t understand the question’s full implications as a preteen, I was fortunate to have confronted that cardinal fear so young—it freed me up to live.

Surviving persuades you, almost forces you, to live life honestly and completely, to value what you have while you have it. Surviving entreats you to share that insight while positively influencing the things you can control and having the fortitude to withstand the things you cannot. It asks you to believe in the efficacy of hope, while recognizing it’s no panacea.

The other day, I chatted with a waiting-room companion at the retinologist’s office. A faulty cataract surgery had left him blind in one eye, and now the other eye is failing. At 45, he will not likely see the quizzical grin on his baby’s face as she takes her first wobbly steps, or his 7-year-old son’s first triumphant base hit. Yet his outlook remains remarkably optimistic. The frustration of my own ongoing tests seemed suddenly bearable, and I left the appointment feeling immensely grateful. Even survivors have something to learn about living.

The Orange County Foundation for Oncology, Children and Families provides free camps and other activities for kids with cancer. 949-855-1972, ocf-ocf.org.

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