Ten years ago, I was working as an Instructional Coach at my local school district, preparing for the release of my first novel and spending typical family time with my husband and three kids.
That spring my thirteen-year-old son had been complaining of some pain in his leg. I was convinced that it was growing pains – after all, he had shot up to nearly six feet tall in a short amount of time and was very active. Take an aspirin, I said. Still the swelling and pain continued and I took Alex to the doctor.
“This isn’t good,” the doctor said after taking x-rays. “This isn’t good at all.” He placed the x-ray on the light board and even to my non-medical eye I could see there was a large mass just above his left knee.
Within days, Alex was admitted to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, had a biopsy, a port implanted, and began chemotherapy for bone cancer.
Below is an email update I sent to friends and family the week of April 12, 2009.
Alex is still in Iowa City as of this evening (going on 2 weeks now). His counts are good and his fevers are down, but he's been in quite a bit of pain and his leg seems to be more swollen. Because of this, the doctors decided to do another MRI on Friday night and we learned today that while parts of the tumor are dying it seems to be growing also. We will find out tomorrow if Alex will be able to come home or if they will start his second round of chemo right away. I have mixed feeling on this - I think it will do him a world of good to be in his own bed for a few days, but I also want to get going with the chemo and let it do its job!
Alex continues to amaze us - we are so proud of his strength. Despite the pain, boredom and ever-changing discharge dates he is hanging in there. The doctors gave Alex a pass to get out of the hospital for a few hours so he and Scott were able to go out for lunch today.
Thank you for all the prayers and positive thoughts being sent our way. The support that everyone is giving us reminds us of the beautiful blessings that can come in the midst of a very terrible thing.
When I reread the above email, I am struck at how upbeat I sound when in reality I was absolutely terrified. Fortunately, we had an amazing support system of family and friends who were there for us every single step of the way. My husband was a rock and whenever I felt like I was going to give everything over to fear, I’d look to him and the world would seem to right itself a bit.
During the nine months of treatment, Alex had dozens of inpatient visits, plummeting white blood cell counts, numerous fevers, a blood clot, a faulty port that needed to be replaced, blood transfusions, and had his leg amputated. He had to learn how to walk again and to face a new reality as a cancer survivor and amputee.
As a family, we learned to navigate a new normal. Cancer impacts the entire family and the siblings of those with cancer have a unique set of challenges. For me I was scared, heartbroken and so grateful for the top-notch healthcare my son received from world-class doctors and nurses at The University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.
Ten years later, Alex is cancer free, a college-graduate and one of the bravest people I know. His sisters have grown into compassionate, strong young women. We are so proud of them all. And today, more than ever, those final words of that ten-year-old email still rings true: beautiful blessings can come in the midst of a very terrible thing.
Heather Gudenkauf is the Edgar Award nominated, New York Times, and USA Today bestselling author of The Weight of Silence, These Things Hidden, Little Mercies, One Breath Away, Missing Pieces, and Not A Sound. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education. She has spent her career working with students of all ages and continues to work in education as a Title I Reading Coordinator. Heather lives in Iowa with her family and a very spoiled German Shorthaired Pointer named Lolo. Her newest novel, Before She Was Found, will be available in bookstores nationwide April 16, 2019. www.heathergudenkauf.com
Heather encourages you to look at the work that Miracle Network Dance Marathon does for children and their families. Miracle Network Dance Marathon is a movement benefitting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for more than 170 pediatric hospitals across North America. We are the only children’s charity committed to having 100% of the funds raised stay local to support local kids. Since inception, Miracle Network Dance Marathon has raised more than $250 million for kids across North America- ensuring that no child or family fights pediatric illness or injury alone. Visit: dancemarathon.childrensmiraclenetworkhospitals.org