“Hey Mom? Do you know the life expectancy of a stage 4 kidney cancer patient?” That was the moment I realized Cassie, my 18-year-old daughter, was thinking about her own life and the possibility of her early death. We were driving home from an MRI of her brain; she had passed out in the shower while living in her dorm room at Michigan State University and her oncologist quickly ordered the test to see if the cancer had spread further.
Cassie’s cancer was diagnosed in her junior year in high school after the flu and some unexplained back pain sent us to the doctor. Within the first six months Cassie underwent two major surgeries: the first to remove her kidney and surrounding lymph nodes, the second to replace her hip and remove a section of the pelvis the cancer had already eaten away. After the second operation her surgeon proclaimed her “cancer free”…in retrospect that would never be the case.
Like many young adult cancer patients Cassie was an old soul, exceptionally inspiring, and had a way of living life that only those that have to think of death do. She once told me “I am no more likely to die than the kid sitting next to me in class, the difference is he never has to think about it.” Somehow she used that as a motivator. During her four-year battle we didn’t talk about death much, only living, everyday all the way to the end. She used to wish the days she felt well would never end; when she woke up everything could be different and we might end up in the emergency room before dinner.
As her mother there was a great balancing act between letting her experience life and wanting to keep her home to micro-manage her every move. Life won every time! We celebrated every milestone with her – high school graduation, leaving for college, the Dean’s list every semester, turning 21 and her crowning glory walking a 5k on Thanksgiving morning in Detroit’s Turkey Trot. The following Tuesday Cassie would have and MRI revealing several tumors on her spine, explaining her leg and arm pain. Her 8th major surgery was scheduled for that week. It was the end of her semester at MSU so the night before surgery she was busy emailing her professors explaining her situation and scheduling appointments to take her final exams upon return to campus.
The hospital experience had become a normal part of life for our family. Most nights I stayed at the hospital with Cassie while my husband Chris stayed home with Ashley and Ethan, Cassie’s older sister and younger brother. That night was no different. I fell asleep in the hospital chair that conveniently morphs into a single bed while Cassie was Face Timing her boyfriend. I was in a deep sleep that comes when you’re completely exhausted when I heard Cass saying, “Mom…are you awake? Mom? MOM!” “Yeah, yeah…I’m awake, what’s up?” I wasn’t even sure where I was at that point, but I knew Cassie needed to talk. “Can you braid my hair?” Secret code for “let’s talk”. “Sure, do you have the stuff?” She handed me the comb and ponytail holders, within seconds she started to talk non-stop. “I’ve been thinking. I know this might be hard for you to hear but I need to get some things off my chest.” I’m not sure what I was thinking at that moment but I knew I needed to wake up and listen. “If something happens to me while I’m in surgery or after, there are some things of mine I want to make sure are given to certain people.” You can imagine my horror…did she know something I didn’t? Had God whispered something in her ear that prompted this conversation?
Cassie went on for a few minutes before the look on my face registered with her, she knew she was scaring me. “Mom, I don’t think I’m going to die, I just think you should know stuff about me and I should know the same about you. What do you want to happen with some of your things if you were gone?” Somehow when her talking turned into a conversation everything seemed natural. We talked about life, dreams and our wishes for a few hours before one of us realized the nurses would be waking us soon; we should get some sleep. Cassie woke up after surgery, recovery began, and soon we were walking the halls, dragging the IV pole and making plans for her future again.
I will forever be grateful for that time together. Somehow we looked at the elephant in the room and were able to talk about it without too much fear of it trampling us. Death is not an easy subject, especially when the voice speaking is 21 years old. God gave us a gift, the ability to face one of life’s most difficult challenges with grace. It was never my favourite topic but there were no unanswered questions when we walked her to heaven’s gate. “MOM…do you know the life expectancy of a stage 4 kidney cancer patient?” Knowing the answer I replied, “Uhhhh, I’m not sure. Do you?” “Yeah, 18 months. It’s been 18 months so I guess I have some extra time. I have a lot of things I want to do, I should probably make an “F” it list!”
Karen Hines is a mother of three, a wife of 27 years, a full time dental hygienist and the dynamic Awareness Director for the Cassie Hines Shoes Cancer Foundation – Changing Lives One Step At A Time. www.cassiehinesshoescancer.org