By Terrie Carbone
This month I am retiring after 40 years as a pediatric nurse practitioner at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center. It seems fitting to end my career in September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
It has been an honor and a privilege working with children and their families on their journey of childhood cancer. Each child has been a precious gift that has taught me many life lessons, helping me appreciate life by reminding me of what is important and what should be valued.
The road a child walks when diagnosed with cancer is a very difficult, unpredictable and stressful one. Childhood cancer is cruel. It makes children grow up too fast. It robs them of their childhood. Cancer treatment means bald heads, nausea, pain and fatigue.
Children often miss school and time with friends due to aggressive treatment and fragile immune systems. Playtime is replaced with hospital time for chemotherapy, surgeries or radiation treatments. As they struggle to understand, it means being fearful of the medical terms and treatments a cancer diagnosis brings.
However despite these challenges, for these kids, resilience defines them. Their spirit shines through as they wipe their tears and lift their heads. With amazing courage they take on the cancer fight.
Despite their fears and the unknown, they still smile and appreciate humor. And they learn to adjust to life with cancer. Their determination inspires each and every one of us. Quickly our own problems become very small, when you see a child’s acceptance of all that seems unfair.
Parents of these children have taught me the true meaning of being a parent. Parents are immediately faced with decisions no parent should ever have to make. Despite heavy hearts and being overwhelmed, they attempt to absorb what the doctors explain. They provide their child unending love and support, and would trade places with them in a heartbeat. They balance jobs and their other children. When they are exhausted and feel like they have nothing left to give, they give more. From them I have learned to have faith, and to never give up hope.
Since I started my career 40 years ago, cancer still remains the leading cause of death by disease in children. Advances in targeted and immunotherapy are promising. Survival rates have risen, and about 80% of our pediatric patients will appreciate a cure. They pick up the pieces and move forward in their “new normal” life after cancer, for which they are stronger.
However, 20% of our children continue to lose their battle with cancer. A parent never gets over the loss of a child; their grief is lifelong. They learn to live with a hole in their hearts, wondering what their child might be doing, if they only had the chance for a cure. As a parent I cannot imagine their pain. These children continue to live on in our hearts. They are the inspiration to continue research until every child is cured.
I am thankful for a career that allowed me to work these very special kids who gave me perspective, and made a better person. And if you ever need to be inspired, spend some time with a child with cancer.
Terrie Carbone, of Buffalo, has been a pediatric nurse practitioner for 40 years.