This is part four of a four-part series written by Ted Sibley, MD, a former Children’s cancer patient from Plymouth, Minn., who used to work as a nursing assistant and pharmacy technician at Children’s while attending medical school, about how cancer drastically impacted all aspects of his life from youth to adulthood.
Part 2: Cancer delivers another blow
Ted Sibley, MD
Childhood cancer survival rates are on the rise. Current estimates are that there are more than 325,000 children, teens and adults living in the United States who are survivors of childhood cancer, and each of us has a story to tell.
If we were too young to understand what was happening, our parents could tell you about the struggles they went through — their worries and tears they cried for us when we were too young and weak. Some of us have made it into adulthood, and we can tell you how cancer is something we carry with us. We are part of a collective group who faced death at a young age and now are living life in a newfound light. And we are the lucky ones. For every story like mine, there are countless children who lost their fights with cancer:
- Children who had bright futures, energizing smiles and did nothing wrong to have lost their lives so soon
- Children who should have grown up, graduated high school, attended college and changed the world
- Families who are left with memories of these children
- Parents and siblings who can tell you the brave fight their child or sibling fought and how they feel about their vacancy in the world
Much like me, they can tell you exactly when and where they were when they discovered that their young loved one had cancer. And they can tell you about their life before and after cancer crept its way into their world and changed them forever.
During my time as a nursing assistant, I had the pleasure of sharing my story with patients and their families, but I also got to see firsthand the loss of a child taken from the world too soon. Late one December, a young boy undergoing chemotherapy spent Christmas in the hospital because his blood counts were too low to go home. I spent time in his room, talking with his mother about how my roommates and I had had a very small Charlie Brown-esque tree on our table years before, but we did not have a star to place on the top. The young boy made arts and crafts to pass the time that evening, and the next day I came to work, his mother handed me a gift. He had made a star for the top of our tree. I thanked him and promised that this would be on my tree for years to come. This little boy lost his fight with cancer within a couple of months, but his small balsa wood star with yellow paint and gold trim sits atop our tree every year. It is one of the most precious things I own and reminds me of those who have lost their fight with a terrible disease.
The impact of being a cancer survivor has changed my life since I was diagnosed. The life I lead now is correlated to the experiences and person that I had become after undergoing treatment. Since my wife and I adopted our first son, I have finished medical school and residency, and I am now a practicing emergency medicine physician. I have had the opportunity to become a father two more times since our first adoption. My wife and I are parents to an Ethiopian boy along with another Colombian child, making an incredibly busy (but wonderful) family. I have become heavily involved in international medical work and am the medical director for a team that provides medical care to the indigenous people of the Amazon River. I have been able to travel extensively throughout Central and South America to work in various hospitals and clinics. I also have been allowed the opportunity to extend my medical services to countries throughout Africa and use the medical knowledge I’ve received through my training to help others on an international scale. My cancer history led me to the life I have now.
My wife also has been affected deeply by cancer. Though she was not directly involved in the initial effects of my therapy, she has experienced the ripple effects of my treatment. She changed the way she saw our marriage after my diagnosis of infertility. She has now become a mother who has embraced our adopted children and focused her heart and mind to be a champion for international and domestic orphan rights. She has led numerous teams to work throughout Haiti in orphanages and works endlessly for homeless children in our current city. She has volunteered our home a designated “Safe Families” house for homeless children. We provide temporary placement for various children from our area while their parents secure housing and job opportunities. We now have three sets of bunk beds in our home, countless extra sets of shoes and clothing for boys and girls, and we are just a phone call away from getting additional children who need a temporary place to stay.
Sometimes I worry that my past will strike again when I least expect it. Do you ever have a stomach ache or feel short of breath and wonder if you have a tumor in your abdomen that has now spread to your chest? Probably not. I try not to dwell on such things. But, on more than one occasion, I have taken myself in for a CT scan — just to make sure. Because germ cell cancer secretes the same hormone as a pregnant female, I will occasionally purchase a pregnancy test at the store and test my own urine. (No, not pregnant; I actually just had gastric reflux.) But with every mundane cough, body ache or pain that I experience, the thought that cancer could recur remains in the back of my mind.
This year, I turned 33 and reflected on what 20 years of cancer survivorship has meant to me. I wonder what type of person I would have been without cancer. For better or worse, my experience had substantial effects on my loved ones and me. I’m a different person today because of May 18, 1995. To my wife, I am a husband. To my parents, I am their son. To my kids, I’m their dad. I’m also a friend, brother and physician. But to those who know my history, I’m also proud to be called a cancer survivor.
Ted Sibley, MD, is a doctor in emergency services at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo., and a clinical assistant professor for the emergency medicine department and adjunct clinical assistant professor for the master of medical science physician assistant program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.