Two preschoolers sit at a table playing with a Strawberry Shortcake dollhouse.
A mom holds her sleeping toddler on her lap and chats quietly with the neighboring mom. Nurses come in and out smiling, intimately familiar with each child, checking IV bags, unobtrusively taking temperatures, and updating charts. More children sit at school-sized tables, eating lunch. Volunteers wash toys. There is a visit from the clowns. The clinic is a surprisingly upbeat place considering the patients are all children with cancer.
Celia enthusiastically attacks a chocolate cupcake.
The crumbs stick to her chin, some even making it to the peach fuzz on her otherwise bald head. When she notices the Strawberry Shortcake house, she sits right down and makes herself at home. Watching her bright smile and energetic play, it’s hard to believe she’s sick. But that’s cancer.
“She’ll be doing well one day, and the next, she’ll end up in the hospital for two weeks,” Katie, Celia’s mother says.
Last April, Celia was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma. Katie knew something was terribly wrong when her daughter stopped walking. But the cancer diagnosis, that was a shock.
“Sometimes I still can’t process those words,” she says.
The routine of their life now includes chemo treatments, steroid cycles, and weekly trips to the outpatient clinic. And while Celia doesn’t understand that she has cancer, she’s very aware of her daily routines. And she’s very comfortable with her new friends and the staff at the clinic. With a finished drawing in hand, she comes in search of another snack. This time it’s cottage cheese. “Go ask someone for a spoon,” Katie says, and Celia trots off. Someone here will help her find a spoon.
Katie has found new friends too. The other cancer moms are fiercely loyal and generously supportive of one another.
“You come to care so much about each other’s children,” Katie says. “When you hear that someone went to the ER, you want to show up there too. Sometimes you do.” And when friends and family don’t understand what battling for your child’s life really looks like, this group does.
“During steroid week, I can’t even take a shower, never mind leave the house,” Katie explains. She recently had to miss a family wedding.
Katie is pregnant with her third child. It’s not unusual to see a pregnant mom, or a mom with younger siblings in tow, at the clinic. Many of the children here were diagnosed as toddlers or preschoolers, a time when families are growing. There is support and understanding in this place. These parents know that if they wait for normal, they may not have any more children. Life doesn’t stop.
And Katie has a fear that only other cancer families understand. It’s the fear of Celia’s treatment ending. “The chemo protects her. I never want to have to start this over again.” She tries not to think about it too much.
Today, Celia starts another round of steroids.
Today, Katie plans to gratefully accept a chair massage from one of the volunteers.
Today, another week begins.
Diagnosed with B-Cell Lymphblastic Lymphoma at 4