JOHN L. SMITH: Daughter”S Struggle Against Cancer Provides Lesson in Being Thankful

This Thanksgiving I find myself more thankful than at any time in my life.

We are in the middle of what many people would call a horrible experience, our 8-year-old daughter Amelia’s medical treatment for a cancerous brain tumor.

“Thankful?” you ask. “For a brain tumor?”

It’s awful, of course. It’s painful and frightening, and I would give anything for it not to have happened.

But you can’t turn back the clock or become mired in the unthinkable possibilities the future might bring. The present is all we have, and so that is where we’re focused. I’m thankful for that lesson.

There is pain, but there is also something incredible going on. I’ve been given an opportunity to be part of the life of a brave little girl who just happens to be my daughter. I’m awed by this opportunity — even though what I’ve seen has sometimes been almost too much to bear.

Pushing a chemotherapy stand behind her the other day, I watched Amelia stoop as she took the slow, painful steps of an old woman. At that moment, she might have been 100. Her back ached from a spinal tap, her chest hurt from a surgically implanted medical port in her chest, and I ached along with her. But I was awed by her strength.

It was then I made sure to remind myself to be thankful — thankful because a battery of tests came up negative for the spread of cancer from her brain to her spine, thankful because that medical port would nearly end the need for all the painful needles in her arms, hands and neck. Thankful because she was winning a fight other children in the pediatric ward of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix were losing.

Two days later, Amelia was energetic enough to walk to the pediatric playroom, where the kids congregate whenever possible to play games, practice arts and crafts, and visit with people more their own size and age.

I was thankful that she was walking at all, for the little boy we’d met earlier in the day had been born with spina bifida and would be wheelchair-bound all his life. His parents had stood by him through dozens of surgeries. Although he was just a small boy, he’d been using his wheelchair for so long that his tiny hands were knots of muscle. That young kid was tougher than most of the professional athletes I’ve ever met.

Amelia and the boy had had minor surgeries on the same morning, and they had that in common — that, and an affinity for Sponge Bob – – and became instant friends.

Later, when the effects of her chemotherapy treatment made her quiet, lethargic and queasy, I saw the color drain from her face and felt my heart sink. But she has improved steadily, and the doctors and nurses smile when they see her. Neurosurgeons and oncologists love a success story in the making.

This process is teaching us that not all angels play harps and float on clouds. Plenty of them work 12-hour shifts disguised as pediatric nurses.

It’s great that our nurses are professionals, some of whom specialize in caring for chemo kids, but their kindness is what makes them so remarkable. They don’t have to share their supper, hand-craft a little girl a pair of earrings, dress her in hospital scrubs like a miniature doctor, or invite her horseback riding as an incentive for getting well soon, but they’ve done that and a hundred other things.

Only a fool wouldn’t be thankful.

These days, Amelia loses her beautiful golden strands with every brush stroke, but I am thankful because I know her hair will grow back one day.

One day, when her chemotherapy and radiation treatments are finally over. One day, when the memories of all the needle sticks and morning booster shots and nauseating medicine are a thing of the past.

One day, when she’s well again.

Just a few years ago a malignant tumor in such a precarious place in the brain might have been inoperable, or at best caused irreparable damage during surgery. As unfortunate as we might sometimes want to feel, we’re incredibly blessed to be living in an age of medical possibilities.

Slowly, a painful step at a time, she’s getting better.

How could I be anything but thankful for that?

John L. Smith’s column appears Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. E-mail him at [email protected] or call 383-0295.