Shannon Philpott-Sanders

Writing, Reflecting, Teaching

“The word that changed my life”

ww_logo       Published 8/12/2003 issue of “Woman’s World”

 Just 15 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia, Mindy Reed hated how cancer changed everything – the loss of her hair, her friends, her life as she knew it. But in time, Mindy realized that cancer had also changed her in a good way – a way that would lead to a dream …

When I was 15, I knew the words to almost every song on the radio. I knew what shades of lip gloss were cool. I knew which sophomore was going out with a certain football player. But there were other things I knew, too; the way the sun stings the skin above your ears when there’s no hair there. How it hurts your mom more to see you in pain than it hurts yourself. That a single word can change your whole life – especially when that word is cancer.

Yet, what I had no way of knowing was that cancer would transform me in a good way …

Growing up, I had a wonderful family – loving parents and a little brother, Ben. Starting high school, I was so excited. Maybe I’d fall in love!

Beyond that, I didn’t know what I wanted for my future. I thought I had all the time in the world.

Then, around Christmas of my freshman year, I got the flu. “All I wanna do is sleep,” I groaned to my friends when they asked what I was wearing to the holiday dance.

They looked at me like I had two heads – usually, I was the first one out on the floor. But my legs felt as heavy as lead and I kept throwing up.

Worried, Mom took me to the doctor At first, they said it was my thyroid, then anemia. But as winter turned to spring, routine blood work revealed the horrible truth: I had leukemia.

“Do you know what chemotherapy is?” a doctor at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis asked gently. But I just sat there, numb, fighting tears.

“You’re going to be very sick,” he continued. “You’ll lose weight – and your hair.”

My fingers floated to my long, black hair. “You’re the hair queen!” my friends were always gushing. Not anymore, I thought sourly.

“We’ll beat this,” my mom comforted, but her voice was shaky – just like my dad’s hands as he held mine while I was prepped for surgery to insert a chemotherapy port in my chest.

During my first nine months of treatment, my family never left my side. When you’re a kid, it’s easy to take your parents for granted. But suddenly, I realized that without mine, I was helpless.

“I love you,” I whispered, though the words didn’t seem enough.

But when you’re a teenager, nothing can replace your friends. I missed sitting on the phone dishing about the cute guys in our classes. At first, my friends called, even visited. But I could see the sadness in their eyes, hear the fear in the laughter they forced, and soon I stopped hearing from them altogether. I told myself that the sterile hospital walls and the IV dripping into my arm scared them away.

Looking back, they were just kids; how could I expect them to handle a life-or-death situation? But I didn’t get a choice. So as my friends went on dates, I was waking up to a pillow covered with strands of hair and a heart aching with loneliness.

“I can’t stand it anymore!” I cried, staring out the tiny window at the world going on outside without me. One day, feeling sorry for myself, I began wandering down the halls of the hospital.

But as I did, a lump grew in my throat. There were babies hooked up to breathing machines, little kids too weak to watch cartoons. Have they even had time to learn that life is worth fighting for? I cried.

Suddenly, I wanted nothing more than to help them.

I began spending time in the toddler play area, finger-painting rainbows and playing hide and seek. “Min-dyyyy!” their little voices would ring out when I arrived. They were just so cute, and when I played with them, I’d forget about my own problems for a while.

So when I was released from the hospital, I decided to attend a summer camp for cancer patients called HISKIDS (Helping Is Serving Kids in Distress Situations).

“Do you have cancer, too?” one little girl asked me when she noticed I had just a few wisps of hair like she did.

I nodded. Then I said, “But I’m going to get well. And you will, too.”

For me, there would be good news: tests showed I was cancer-free! But too many kids I swam in the lake with that summer lost their battles. I’ll never, ever forget you, I cried.

When school started again, I couldn’t wait to get back to normal. But sitting in the cafeteria at lunch, as my old friends prattled on, “Did you see her hair today?” I felt more like 50 than 15. I didn’t care who had the best hair anymore – I hardly had any!

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you,” my best friend apologized. I wrapped my arms around her. Life is just too short to hold grudges, I knew.

And something else was stirring inside me, too. Ever since I’d been diagnosed, I’d wondered: Why me? But maybe cancer wasn’t something to just leave behind, I realized. Maybe it was something that would always be a part of me – like the love of my family. No, I might never be “normal” again. But that was okay. Because suddenly, I knew why I’d been diagnosed – and why I’d been spared: to give my life purpose.

So that summer – and the next – I continued volunteering at HISKIDS. And when it came time to consider college, I told my parents, “I want to be a nurse in pediatric oncology to help other kids with cancer like me.”

“We’re so proud of you!” they beamed.

Today, at 20, I’m working on making that dream come true. I just finished my first year of nursing school and work as a patient care assistant at Children’s Hospital, on the very same floor where I had my chemotherapy. Best of all, I’m still cancer-free!

“I was once a patient here, too,” I tell each child I meet. “And just look at me now!”

Sometimes, I can’t help but think: Wow. Once, I thought cancer was the worst thing that could happen. But it’s taught me that I’m strong, in body and spirit. And it has led me to these children, these little hearts so filled with courage. I know they’re the reason I’m alive today, because I’m not finished making a difference – for them, or for me.

In fact, I think as I sweep one little patient up for a piggyback ride, her giggles make my heart sing, I’m just getting started!

– as told to Shannon Philpott with Kristin Higson-Hughes

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July 15, 2009 - Posted by | Magazine Writing | , ,

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