Now I’m in Your Corner
by Becki Brown
When a malignant tumor is found on your 10th birthday, you have few stories to share about your life before “the big C.” As a fourth grader, I enjoyed playing outside with my friends and battling my little brother in video games. But that changed when my parents explained to me on a cold November evening that I had osteosarcoma (a type of bone cancer) of the rib.
My day-to-day routine switched from math homework to frequent oncology clinic visits at Akron Children’s Hospital in Ohio. Looking back at old diaries, I notice that I hardly ever mention the chemotherapy treatments, surgeries, or overwhelming fatigue. I didn’t write about cancer; I knew no other life. Instead, I wrote about my new dog, Buttons, and building snowmen when I was healthy enough to go outside.
After surgery to remove three ribs and eight months of chemotherapy, I was ready to begin life as a typical fifth grader. Or maybe not so typical: I wore a hat to hide my hair loss and took daily snack and rest breaks. I also had an extra set of books at home because they weighed too much to carry back and forth. But aside from these “cancer mementos,” I was like every other kid.
By the time I reached high school, hospital admissions were a distant memory, and I had more positive events to focus on. Not only would I soon receive my temporary driver’s permit, but the June before my sophomore year, I had also won a spot on the majorette line. All I could think about were the fun high school experiences that were mine for the taking.
Now I have the privilege of meeting and supporting hundreds of families and translating my personal experiences in oncology into my profession.
But two weeks later, I got the call that brought cancer to the forefront of my life once again. My disease was back, and this time, the cancer was in my lung. How could I possibly be losing half my lung to cancer when I was just 15 years old? Hadn’t I been put through enough? Didn’t these doctors know that I had more important things to do than to start chemotherapy all over again? Those precious high school experiences I had worked so hard for were being stolen from me, and once again, cancer was the thief.
Fortunately, my story has a happy ending. After surgery to remove the top half of my left lung and another four months of chemotherapy, I survived the second diagnosis. I’ve been cancer free since 1999. But like many other childhood cancer survivors, my identity is forever blanketed with an overwhelming qualifier. We had cancer, and it can be a shadow we’ll carry for the rest of our lives.
How do you move forward from an illness that has overtaken your typical childhood and adolescent experiences? How do you move through feelings of survivor guilt? My answer was to repurpose my cancer-infused identity. Cancer could have my ribs and my lung, but I would not let it take the meaningful adulthood experiences I desired.
In 2007, I completed a Master’s program at Kent State University in Human Development and Family Studies. The day after my 25th birthday, I began my career at Summa Health System as the coordinator of guest services and the cancer library in the Jean B. and Milton N. Cooper Cancer Center in Akron, OH. Now I have the privilege of meeting and supporting hundreds of families and translating my personal experiences in oncology into my profession. My cancer experience now involves sharing supportive programs and answering questions about hair loss and support groups. Offering a listening ear is part of the job, and sometimes I talk about my own experiences too.
It is as if I have an answer to my evolving identity, to all those times I cried out silently, “Why me?” while deep in the shadows of my teenage bedroom. I am here to support people who are making the cancer journey. I’m proud and grateful that my childhood experiences help me do it.
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Becki Brown, a childhood osteosarcoma survivor, is the coordinator of guest services and the cancer library at Summa Health System’s Jean B. and Milton N. Cooper Cancer Center in Akron, OH. She is also on the board of directors for the Cancer Patient Education Network, a multi-disciplinary group of professionals working in cancer patient and family education throughout the United States and Canada. She resides with her husband in Fairlawn, OH.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2011.