by Angie Giallourakis, Caregiver
When your child, no matter how old, is diagnosed with cancer life comes to a screeching halt. Imagine trying to keep your son’s or daughter’s spirits up when cancer looms overhead and it’s two weeks before Christmas.
Our son Steven is a two-time cancer survivor. In 2006, at age 15 he was first diagnosed with Stage Four Osteosarcoma. After ten months of rigorous chemotherapy, radiation, and two spine surgeries he was declared NED (No Evidence of Disease). What a wonderful acronym.
Steven returned to high school and completed his junior and senior year without any extraordinary excitement. Everyone was glad to see him and life was status quo. He returned to sports, went to parties and generally had a pretty good time.
In the fall of 2008 he started college with the goal of studying physics. My husband Harry and I crossed our figures and prayed that he would be able to accomplish this goal. Unfortunately God had other plans.
One week after Thanksgiving, during a routine oncology visit, Steven (now 19 years old) was informed that leukemia cells were present in his blood. Thank God I was with him that day so when that awful diagnosis was announced we could embrace as he cried. My heart was crushed.
The Christmas holidays are usually filled with much joy and anticipation. Our home is usually open to extended family and friends while we host Christmas Dinner each year. We had hoped that this year would be special and we would all be together; unfortunately that wasn’t the case. As shoppers were flocking the department stores, my husband Harry and I were trying very hard to maintain a sense of hope and calm by suppressing our tears and refusing to speak about the negative possibilities Steven’s condition presented.
Through a bone marrow biopsy we were informed of the type of leukemia and treatment needed to save our son’s life. We knew the situation was very serious and were very concerned about his future. Officially the disease is called Secondary Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (secondary because the leukemia was caused by his previous cancer’s treatment). Steven’s oncologist informed us that a bone marrow transplant was the only option to consider if we wanted to save our son’s life. We knew that this procedure was life-threatening and likely life-altering, and the 3 of us agreed to proceed with the treatment. Being that Christmas was around the corner, we had hoped that Steven could be home for the holiday, but that was not the case. His oncologist informed us that it was critical that time wasn’t wasted and requested Steven enter the hospital in one week. Once in the hospital, chemotherapy treatment began with the goal of arresting the leukemia and readying his body for a Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT). We were told to anticipate the BMT sometime in the spring, provided we could find a donor.
Since Steven was admitted into the hospital the week before Christmas I was determined to create as festive an environment as possible. Some of my decisions were right on and others were not. I think that as a mother we try our best to keep our young adult children as happy as possible knowing full well that we cannot eliminate their unexpressed anxiety and fear. We are only human. We work hard to be strong and positive. Using grace and prayer we hopefully achieve success in raising our child’s spirit while he is lying in that hospital bed.
We try because we are a parent aching for our child.
Steven allowed me to decorate his room with ornaments and thanks to a young friend and former cancer patient named Emily, he had a small decorated tree in the corner of his room. It breaks my heart to recall this event as our friend Emily lost her battle to cancer and is now an angel watching over us.
I felt overwhelmed with the holiday approaching. I informed family members, however, to forgive me and not expect a gift this year. I felt comfortable asking close friends and relatives to run errands for me so that I didn’t have to leave Steven alone in the hospital during the day. There was no other place I wanted to be but by my son’s side. I believe it is wise to allow others to pick up some of the slack during the holidays when loved ones are ill and in the hospital. This is the time to put your ego aside and allow others to do for you!!
For the first time in my married life Christmas day was spent with just my husband and three sons. The five of us exchanged gifts as Steven lay in his bed. He wasn’t up to much activity, so of course we were flexible. Interestingly our gifts represented the love and respect we have for each other: middle son Nick created a video about “our three sons” which brought tears to my eyes, I created a family photo collage for Harry’s office, Phillip purchased us all meaningful gifts that would help us during this difficult time and so on.
There was one gift, however, that arrived later in the day and made a difference for Steven. My good friend crocheted a twin bed sized Greek Flag! What a gift of love! Steven was so pleased to wave it and wrap himself in its warmth. Needless to say Steven’s joy warmed our hearts! It’s the little things in life that bring joy. Harry’s Aunt Mary always likes to say “when life brings you lemons, make lemonade”. Well, we certainly have made gallons!!!
So here is my philosophy on the upcoming Holiday Season: Enjoy the holiday the best you can. Let others help out. Bring the party to the patient even if it’s done by toasting the day with a couple cans of Sprite!
We are blessed that Steven survived his AML (Acute Myelogenous Leukemia) and Bone Marrow Transplant. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that today is here and for that we are thankful.
Postscript: When New Year’s 2011 rang in Steven announced to all of us “Hey guys, let’s toast the New Year because I am HOME!!! And not in the hospital!”
Angie Giallourakis, momcologist, AYA cancer advocate and community activist, Founder of the Steven G AYA Cancer Research Fund. Married to Harry. We have three wonderful sons: Phil, Nick, and Steven. You can learn about the Steven G Fund at www.fightconquercure.org