I remember the first time I felt this way, it was back in March of 1999. I was home in my room at my dad’s and had just finished “Game 3” chemo. My dad called up the stairs and brought me up the paper to show me some news. A cancer buddy of mine had died. It was my first cancer buddy to die; his name was Darryl and he was 16.
It was a new and different kind of challenge for me.
I think there were two parts of that experience that were so tough: one, Darryl was so young, younger than I, and he, like me, was a member of this “young Cancer community.” I feel a bond with all cancer patients, especially those who are young, and even more so with those who I’ve met and shared stories with.
The second reason it was tough for me is selfish; I think it helped and challenged me to deal with my own situation in a different way than I had before. It challenged me to think about the distinct possibility that I could face the same situation as Darryl. This wasn’t something that I neglected, not at all, in fact it was something, like most of my challenges that I tried to delve into and explore. However after hearing of a cancer buddy’s death I would end up having a new set of thoughts and feelings relating to the possibility of me dying.
The first time this happened was when Darryl died, and it has happened every time since then when cancer buddies like Jeff Cuff, Jeff Jones, and Philip Nash died. I feel similarly when I hear of a cancer buddy relapsing, as I had done, or even when I hear of another’s struggle.
Each morning it is pretty standard for me to come to work and create my to do list in the morning, or expand and adjust one that I left from the day before. As I left the office yesterday I had this one item I wanted to get done but I decided it could wait until today. You would think that someone with my life experiences would know better than to wait.
Yesterday another cancer buddy of mine, Aaron Bradbury, died at home in Corner Brook, NL. Aaron was 15 when I first met him at the Janeway in St. John’s. I remember getting a call from a friend of his family explaining that he was in hospital and that he’d love a visit. As I always do when I get those calls, I went to the hospital. Though I’m always very careful to ensure that the patient actually wants me to visit, not someone near the patient who thinks it might be a good idea as I feel I’m not doing any good visiting someone who doesn’t want visitors.
I was initially struck by how polite and gentle Aaron was, and that was his true self the more I got to know him. A very sensitive spirit, who appeared much more mature than his age would suggest.
Aaron was diagnosed with AML, like me, and he had a transplant from his brother (I think). He sailed through his post-transplant complications with very few bumps in the road and while from many perspectives that is desirable, the reality is that it’s not good. Graft vs. Host Disease (GVHS) is an important part of post-transplant life, and while too much of it can kill you docs know that having very little of it is not good either. Aaron had very little GVHD. He relapsed before his first transplant anniversary and he began a new journey. I saw and emailed him intermittently throughout his first and second challenge. Though he was so sick for much of his second challenge that I didn’t see him in hospital.
I had a great chat with his mom at the Janeway one day and could see how serious things were from the look on her face before we began talking. Aaron had such amazing love and support from his family which I know makes a major difference in the lives of patients, regardless of the outcome. Aaron’s parents, Gertrude and Robert, would take turns spending a week at a time by Aaron’s bedside. They would pass each other in the airport, often switching roles from giving care to Aaron in St. John’s to caring for his siblings in Corner Brook. So tough on families but I am in constant awe from my own experience and from the experiences of others at just how incredible families and friends can be in times of extreme trial.
I was without much news on Aaron for the past six to eight months other than hearing he really wasn’t doing well. He was in my thoughts a lot lately and thus my reason for wanting to connect. I know that if I had of tackled that email to him yesterday it wouldn’t have made much/any difference. But that somehow isn’t doing much for the pit in my stomach.
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking to many of his friends at a big high school presentation in Corner Brook and I had hoped he would be able to join me in presenting to his classmates one day. I could see how his sensitive, mature nature would have allowed him to make such an impact on the minds and lives of other young people. But that obviously wasn’t the right path for Aaron to follow. I take comfort in my belief that everything really does happen for the right reason. This concept is especially tough to believe in times of serious struggle. But for me it’s really the main thing that gets me through many of the challenges I’ve faced.
I know for some people being diagnosed with cancer, or having a loved one diagnosed, often turns them away from the “cancer community” especially after they have “come out on the other side.” I have obviously chosen to make cancer a part of my life for the foreseeable future. And as my perspective and feelings towards my own challenges continues to evolve, I know that I’m supposed to be doing what I’m doing. Meeting and connecting with amazing people like Aaron continues to reinforce the necessity of RealTime Cancer’s vision. ‘Cause if we don’t have people connected to cancer working to make things better, how do they ever get better?
I am better for having known Aaron Bradbury and his presence in RealTime Cancer’s world is a blessing.
Live life. Love life.