Over the past eight years, I have known profound loss—family members with cancer, multiple miscarriages, and then, just a few months after giving birth to my son, Sam, the stunning news that I carry the BRCA2 gene mutation (the “breast cancer gene”), which meant that it was highly likely I would develop aggressive breast and/or ovarian cancer. The positive test results took my breath away, like a punch in the gut. My Aunt Laura died from ovarian cancer when she was just 42, leaving my 9- and 3-year-old cousins motherless. After everything I went through to have Sam, I couldn’t bear the thought of us being separated like that.
It’s not easy to be a new mother in your 30s and consider a bilateral mastectomy and hysterectomy to avoid cancers you don’t have, but I had to face it. There was no way I was going to let cancer take me from my son without a fight. I had no choice. So I had both surgeries, and it was worth it if I get to watch Sam grow up, get married, and give me grandkids to spoil.
But what if those happy years that I envision with Sam were taken from me because he got cancer? That question ran on an endless loop in my head last October, when my cousin Emily’s 1-year-old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML5a); she almost died before the doctors figured out what was wrong. Then in February, my high school friend Andy found out that his 4-year-old son, Ben, had stage IV glioblastoma, an incredibly aggressive brain tumor. (You may have heard of Ben Sauer–his mother, Mindy, shares his story and their family’s experience with cancer through an incredibly moving blog, Blue4Ben.com.)
Despite all I’d been through during those terribly difficult years, nothing hit me harder than the suffering of these two young children.
I couldn’t handle it. I felt such grief, such pain and sympathy for Emma and Ben, their parents and families. And I couldn’t stop thinking about how my feelings were a mere fraction of what they were feeling. The horrors of watching a beloved child suffer from cancer and its harsh treatments, and not being able to do anything about it. What could be worse?
When I realized that I actually could do something, it made all the difference. I could do exactly what Gretchen Holt Witt did when her son, Liam, was sick – host a bake sale – and in a very real way help kids like Ben and Emma. For the first time in months, I felt a glimmer of hope. Crying and grieving and worrying couldn’t make Emma or Ben better, and it couldn’t bring Liam back. It couldn’t take away their parents’ pain either, but dammit, I could bake cookies! And I could ask everyone I knew to bake even more cookies, donate money, or help however they could. So, I began planning my first Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale.
As I worked on the sale, I learned about the dire underfunding of pediatric cancer research—just 3 cents of every dollar for cancer research in the U.S. goes to funding treatments for children?! How can that be? There are far too many mommies and daddies, grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins out there who love a child with cancer for that statistic to be true. Clearly, people just don’t know, which means that we’ve all got to do our part to spread the word. For Emma Shaffer. For Ben Sauer. For every single boy and girl who deserves to grow up, get married, and give their parents grandkids to spoil.
I’m happy and relieved that Emma endured her chemo and has been cancer-free for three months now; she turned two on April 18th and is back home with Emily and Mike. But little Ben died on May 13th (Liam’s birthday), and Andy and Mindy have to live with that loss every day.
The only thing that has been able to pull me out of my sadness and worry for the Sauers has been working to make my first Cookies for Kids’ Cancer bake sale a success. We’ve already raised more than $4,500, and it’s inspiring to see how the desire to help is contagious. It’s like wildfire – once people hear about Emma and Ben, and the unjust and unequal funding for pediatric cancer research, they want to join the fight. So even though I hope we raise tons of money to help fund new treatments, it’s also just as important that we spread the Cookies for Kids’ Cancer message so others will be moved to help, too.
The worst thing we can do is nothing. The best thing we can do is channel our loss into something positive — a bake sale, a 5K race, a penny drive — that will help these kids and give their families hope. That will make all the difference!