I could never have imagined the journey life would take me on in the years following high school graduation. Like most teenagers, my plans for the future included traveling, getting a degree, and starting a career. What I did not plan for was to be fighting for my life at the age of nineteen. I hadn’t been sick for very long before the pain became unbearable. After routine blood tests, a doctor informed me that I had tested positive for Leukemia and should go to Vancouver General Hospital as soon as possible.
On May 9th 2007, at the age of nineteen, I was officially diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (A.L.L.), which is considered to be a childhood cancer. I had no knowledge of Leukemia at the time, except for what I had seen in movies, and all of them ended badly. In an instant, my life as I knew it was ripped away from me.
Despite being older than the age limit allowed, I was transferred from Vancouver General Hospital to BC Children’s Hospital. New studies at the time showed that a young adult between the ages of 18-25 should be able to handle the same chemotherapy protocol as a 10-year-old. The best thing about being diagnosed with this cancer was that my doctors said it was curable. If anything, it would be the chemotherapy that would be the greatest danger to me. I was so blessed to have an incredible support system made up of my family, friends, doctors, and nurses. They all made it their personal mission to never let me lose hope, and fought alongside me every step of the way. I had to endure two years of chemotherapy treatments to ensure that the cancer would not return.
(From Left to Right: Beginning of treatments, 1st photo of me bald, With my wig from Balding)
During this time, I received numerous blood transfusions, extensive blood tests, bone marrow biopsies, lumbar punctures, and surgeries to implant devices such as a Hickman line and a Port, which would aid in the administration of chemotherapy. Due to the chemo, I not only lost my long blonde hair, but also all muscle mass. It got to the point where I no longer had to share what was happening to me because the scars on my body told the story for me. When I looked in the mirror I no longer recognized the person I saw. Despite this, however, I found the strength to stay positive and keep fighting. The strength to fight also came when my social worker approached me in the clinic and offered me the opportunity to get a wig for myself! I couldn’t believe it. I knew how much wigs cost and I knew I could never afford one. Balding for Dollars was the organization that allowed me to get my wig and it was perfect. It gave me the confidence to step outside my house and go to events. The girl I thought I had lost was still there, with even more gumption than ever. This wig helped me feel normal. Although I was quite open about my experience, it just gave me some extra privacy when I went to the store or movies. People didn’t stare or ask questions. To them, I was a normal girl.
You’d think that was enough, but that’s not the only way that Balding for Dollars helped me on my journey. In my second year of treatments, while I was in the maintenance phase, I was encouraged to start going back to university and get back to having a normal life. This suggestion was problematic for me for two reasons: one being that I did not have the money to pay for tuition, and two, because I could not return to my part-time job as a lifeguard due to my current physical limitations. Once again, Balding for Dollars stepped in to help. I had never received a bursary before and most of the scholarships required extensive volunteering and high grades. Having just taken a year off due to illness, I knew my chances of getting those scholarships were next to nothing and my family was not in a financial position to pay for my schooling on top of my medical bills. The bursary from BFD was such a blessing. It was enough to enroll me in a few classes at school and that gave me the boost I needed to get started on the next journey I would take.
Since finishing treatments in August 2009, I have now graduated from Simon Fraser University with a Bachelor of Arts degree. While I was attending SFU, I joined a student-led group called Club for the Cure and helped them raise over $60,000 for Balding for Dollars. I wanted to give back to the organization that had helped me so much in my journey as a cancer warrior. Balding for Dollars was not just a feel-good organization; it was something I could believe in.
(From Left to Right: Speaking at the Terry Fox Run, Graduation, SFU Balding for Dollars event)
My belief and passion for the mission of Balding for Dollars led me to take the position of Administrator in June, 2015. It has been the greatest honour to be able to serve such a transparent and authentic organization. I love that we are helping children and families from regions all over British Columbia. The 2016 main event was the first that I had organized on my own, and when I say on my own, I mean it in the loosest possible way possible. Balding for Dollars runs on the support of an amazing community of friends, family, and volunteers. I could never have organized the event without them (especially Suzanne Dunbar, Lauren Quin and Jessica Davis! Thanks ladies for keeping me sane and helping me get everything done). I am so proud of every one of our BFD members who came out to shave, donate hair, volunteer, or to cheer on a friend. Thank you for helping us make a difference in the lives of those touched by child cancer.
If you’ve ever helped organize a major event you know that it can take a bit of a toll on your energy stores and after the main event last year, I needed to take some time to recuperate. You may have known before, but being the type of girl I am, I really tried hard not to let it show that something was up with me. On June 3rd 2016 (BCCHF Miracle Weekend), just a few weeks after our Balding for Dollars main event on May 14th, I received the news from my doctors that Leukemia cells had shown up in my blood work. The cancer had returned. This was definitely not how I wanted to finish the Balding for Dollars year, but, as we all know, you don’t get a choice with cancer. You just have to do the best you can. My treatments lasted from June to October and included multiple chemotherapies, total body radiation, a few surgeries, and a stem cell transplant. I know some people were concerned as to why the Balding for Dollars office had been closed throughout the summer/fall of 2016, which is why I feel it is important to personally share with you what was going on.
(From Left to Right: First day of Second Fight with Cancer, Day I found out I was in Remission, Day I received my Stem Cell Transplant)
Since my diagnosis, I can proudly say that I am currently in remission, and that, from what the doctors can see, there is no trace of cancer in my body! I am still in the recovery stage of my journey and it has been an adventure navigating the post transplant experience.
One thing my second battle with cancer has taught me is that organizations like Balding for Dollars are needed more than ever. The support we offer families through the donated funds can help give them the strength to make it through the day. As a patient, I can personally tell you that having someone help me escape the hospital for a “fun” day was enough to break the hold depression wanted to take on me. It makes a huge difference to the young people who are fighting for their lives.
In addition to the emotional toll, however, cancer also places huge financial burdens on families. The support Balding for Dollars is able to offer them makes a big difference, whether it help cover the costs of parking, medications, or groceries, it reminds families that they are not facing the fight alone.
This realization is important, because the fight doesn’t end with the chemo treatments. Afterwards, children and teens are left to process their experiences. I can tell you that figuring out a new “normal” post-cancer is no easy task. Our amazing social workers and child-life teams play an important part in this recovery, but equally important is the need for kids to connect with each other. That is where Teen Adventures comes in. It allows child cancer patients to hang out with other warriors that “get it.” It helps them know that they’re not alone.
Another tangible way Balding supports cancer patients is through the cutting and shaving of hair, much of which is long enough to be donated for the creation of wigs. I lost my hair twice during my first battle with cancer and then twice again within this last year. I learned through my experiences that your hair doesn’t define you, but your strength and courage does. Our head shaving events are an opportunity to show exactly that. You have no idea what it means to a cancer survivor when you stand in solidarity with them and say, “I’m shaving my head for you because you didn’t have a choice.” We, cancer warriors, can be brave and courageous and act like it’s not a big deal to lose our hair, but it is so different for us because the choice was taken away. There is a healing that happens at our Balding events for families and cancer warriors when they see someone shaving for them.
(Photos: My hair had started falling out quite rapidly at this point so I got a little help from my sisters to say goodbye to it.)
I am so grateful for the opportunity to continue to raise awareness about this amazing organization. It is a privilege and an honor to support the incredible warriors and families at BC Children’s Hospital.
I hope that you will continue to join me in fighting to make a difference in their lives.
See you on May 13th for our Balding for Dollars Main Event!
Thanks again for all you do.
My Shave for the Brave moment this past summer: