I’m 26 years old, but I am celebrating a very special “sweet 16” this year.
On Jan. 12, 1999, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia by an oncologist at Valley Children’s Hospital. She told my family and me many devastating things that day — every word forever etched in my heart. She said I would need 2 1/2 years of chemotherapy; I would lose my hair, and that many of the things I loved about life as a 10-year-old girl (school, pets, sports, movies and shopping) would need to be put on hold for a while.
The next 2 1/2 years were tough. My life was very different than my preteen peers — instead of hanging out with friends, playing sports or even being in school, most of my time was spent at Valley Children’s Hospital. I despised every part about chemo, the way it hurt, and the way it made me feel.
But there were parts of my experience with cancer that actually weren’t so bad.
One life-changing experience I had because of cancer was my wish of a lifetime granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation — meeting Britney Spears. I met her during her “Oops” tour with my family in San Bernardino before her concert. The few precious minutes I spent with her were indeed my dream come true.
Besides the obvious, she amazed me so much because she embodied everything that I wasn’t. I quickly learned from my peers that having cancer wasn’t cool and being bald definitely wasn’t either. While I was very uncool, Britney was the coolest. Her upbeat, energetic music was also a good distraction for me and I had plenty of downtime to learn everything about her. I became a Spears fan for life.
The care I received at Valley Children’s Hospital is what made my unbearable experience with cancer bearable. The nurses and doctors at Valley Children’s became my heroes and my best friends. Each doctor, nurse, care technician and child life specialist cared for me as if I were one of their own kids. They asked me about my pets at home, what I was studying in school and were even well aware of my infatuation with Britney Spears.
Though I hated the IVs, shots, spinals, bone marrows, blood transfusions and having a Broviac (a catheter surgically inserted into my chest that led to my heart, to prevent needing to be poked by IVs as often) I still looked forward to seeing my friends who took care of me at Children’s.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to endure that experience anywhere else.
Kids with cancer grow up really fast. They are faced with many life experiences that most adults never face. I learned several lessons during that time which have helped shape much of who I am today:
I learned what it feels like to be left out and made fun of.
I saw the best in people, and I saw the worst in people.
I learned what true bravery is from the kids I met in the hospital.
I learned you can’t always change what happens to you, but you can change the way you look at it.
What stuck with me the most is the life perspective that I acquired — what having a bad day really means or that some of the things that may seem really important, really aren’t. I also became aware that every birthday is a gift, and no one is entitled to another one.
The day I found out I had leukemia, my doctor also told me that I would grow up, go to college, get married and someday lead a normal life. Roughly 16 years later, I would find how right she was.
I did grow up. I graduated from Fresno State with a public-relations degree and married the love of my life on Oct. 4 at Wolf Lakes Park. (Next month we fly to Las Vegas to see Britney perform live!)
It’s funny how full circle life can be. A couple of years ago, I was hired to work in the marketing and communications department at Valley Children’s and to also work on patient-family engagement (I finally get paid to be there!).
It is an honor to be a part of the team that saved my life. I get to see the same people who were so good to me during my time of need, now continuing the same exceptional care to kids who need their help today.
So this “sweet 16” I have lots to celebrate. Not only am I leading a “normal” life, but a beautiful life. And oh, how sweet it is.