This Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we're committed to centering and sharing the unfiltered and authentic stories of the families who are impacted by childhood and adolesccent cancer.
We know that sharing stories can be healing for both the writer and the reader. Below, Kate McMahon - parent to Sabina who was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma and her brother Charlie - shares her story and how Childhood Cancer altered the course of their lives.
My name is Kate McMahon. I’m a 46 years-old mom. I live in a suburban neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. I drive a Kia.
And, I have become a cold-blooded killer.
At least, that's what I want to be.
Before my daughter Sabina was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma last year, I was unaware of my own strength. I might add, blissfully unaware. I’ve always been fun-loving and flexible. But Sabina’s cancer diagnosis exposed a new, primal strength in me I did not know I had. Dozens of people have marveled, “How do you do it?” My answer is always steely, “Oh, it’s in you too…but I hope you never have a reason to unleash it because the door that lets it out is pure hell.”
For me, that happened on a day that would have been one of the best of my life.
September 9, 2021. I’d just arrived in Dallas, TX to spend the weekend with my best college friends - our first reunion since before the pandemic.
And it’s there, while lying poolside in the late summer sun, totally blissed out, that an incoming phone call sends me plunging from heaven to hell.
A man who introduces himself as Dr. Renwick says. “I’ve reviewed Sabina’s X-ray and it appears that there is a very aggressive lesion on her right distal femur, near her knee consistent with evidence of Osteogenic Sarcoma --”
Sarcoma…The word pings and pongs through my neurons, searching for reference.
I shut my eyes. “Wait. What? Are you saying that she could have…. - ” I force the last word out of my mouth, “- cancer?”
“Yes. Those are our preliminary findings. But we need to do more tests. We’re going to need an MRI, a biopsy and some other imaging scans….”
My hearing fades out. The world spins in fractured light, and I collapse to the ground, hugging my knees to my chest and wail. I feel my heart begin to harden into that of a cold-blooded killer, willing me to do anything to get rid of the cancer that’s threatening to take my baby from me.
Two heartbreaking weeks and a battery of tests later, I tearfully wave goodbye to my husband Sean and 9-year-old son Charlie and check into Doernbecher Children’s Hospital with Sabina, towing a Radio Flier wagon loaded up with a week’s worth of supplies. As we enter our small room crammed with medical devices, a hospital bed for her and a bay window cot for me, I flash back to how life before cancer had been like a dinner table, perfectly set. My family of four, with Sabina: almost thirteen…beautiful, kind, and excited about her future. But cancer blew in and flipped it upside down - shattering everything.
The seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months that follow are pure agony. Total misery. A gnarly pit takes up residency in my stomach. Watching Sabina’s hair fall out until we finally shave off what’s left, seeing her spiral into chemo sickness within 10 minutes of the first drips from each bag. The nosebleeds. The neutropenia. The late nights in the ER. The blood transfusions. The desperate cries to “please make it stop, Mommy!” while I continue to approve of pumping more toxic chemicals into my little girl. Then it is a massive surgery in December to remove the osteosarcoma along with the bottom third of her femur, knee and top of her tibia. On top of chemo sickness, now we have to manage extreme pain and depression. January is the darkest period of our lives, and there are still 6 months of chemo to go.
Yet… we are aware of an even darker truth: that there is still one thing worse than the fear of losing her. We are motivated by the sickening idea of a world without her.
I can tell you that there have been silver linings. There have…so many. And among them is finding other mothers and fathers of children with cancer and groups like UKANDU. Pediatric cancer is a club no one wants to join, but once you’re in, it’s so good to connect with others who understand. Before cancer, I could not have imagined how impactful Sabina and Charlie’s first sleep-away camp would be. Camp UKANDU.
On the drive back home from camp, “Bubbles” and “Bolt” recounted the many adventures, laughs, songs and emotions they’d shared with all the other campers and counselors that week. Sabina said it was the first time she felt like a *normal kid* since before her diagnosis.
Among the people who run Camp UKANDU are medical and nursing staff volunteers from Doernbecher and Randall’s. There are also camp leaders who are former campers, cancer survivors and siblings of both cancer survivors and angels. Never once did I question the safety, security or well-being of either of my kids - even in COVID times. My kids came home with a life-changing experience, new friends and a deeper connection with each other.
That last part was especially heart-warming for me because cancer breaks families apart. It had rendered poor Charlie the only one of us consistently at home for nine months. On top of that, only my husband or I could be in the hospital with Sabina during COVID, so Charlie was left to conjure his own nightmares of what it was like in the hospital for us. Camp UKANDU helped disabuse Charlie of all that and make him feel less alone.
I am grateful beyond description that Sabina is 3 months out of chemotherapy and her first CT scan shows no evidence of disease. Next week, she’ll have another scan to check for spread…and this will continue every three months for the next few years. We’re not out of the woods completely yet. And, we’ve already attended the funeral of a young new friend we met in the hospital.
We know the stakes.
Our hearts break for those fresh in the shock of diagnosis, those still in the thick of battle. And, those who keep count of how many days it has been since cancer stole their precious child. To them I want to say: words cannot express the pain I feel for you.
Some troubling statistics: Osteosarcoma has an incident rate of 4 in one million per year, mostly affecting children. Of the 7 billion federal dollars for cancer research, pediatric cancer gets .04 cents on the dollar. Most pediatric cancer treatments – like chemotherapy - have not evolved or advanced in 40 years. Are we made to think that because pediatric cancer is rare – fewer dollars should be spent to fight it? And that we should be satisfied with the same old shotgun approach to the cure? Imagine a world in which children received .06 more cents on the dollar for cancer research and therapy. Imagine what six more pennies per dollar could do to lessen children’s suffering and improve their odds of survival.
Sabina hopes to see a future that will have such change.
I will never know what it would have been like to watch my daughter become a teenager without cancer. But in her thirteenth year, I have seen her make lemonade out of life’s rottnest lemon. Her dream now is to grow up to be a beacon of hope and agent of change for kids with cancer.
She may have even found the trailhead to that future by joining UKANDU Corps - an 8-week program for teens to create meaningful service initiatives to better their shared community. This fall, Sabina will attend bi-monthly meetings, hear from guest speakers, learn about service opportunities, collaborate, and ultimately perform a service initiative of their own.
My embattled heart could not be prouder or more grateful.