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An adult in the pediatric ward: What the littlest Cancer Avengers taught me

By Ann Graham, Special to CNN
February 21, 2014 -- Updated 1704 GMT (0104 HKT)
Now that she has finished treatment, Ann Graham draws inspiration from the young "superheroes" she met who were also treated for osteosarcoma. Andreas Knickman, 17, inspired Graham to ride a bike after cancer. They both had their femurs, kneecaps and tibias replaced with bones made of metal. Knickman's cancer has returned several times. He is in a clinical trial now in which doctors are trying to stop his osteosarcoma from spreading. Now that she has finished treatment, Ann Graham draws inspiration from the young "superheroes" she met who were also treated for osteosarcoma. Andreas Knickman, 17, inspired Graham to ride a bike after cancer. They both had their femurs, kneecaps and tibias replaced with bones made of metal. Knickman's cancer has returned several times. He is in a clinical trial now in which doctors are trying to stop his osteosarcoma from spreading.
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An adult in the children's cancer ward
An adult in the children's cancer ward
An adult in the children's cancer ward
An adult in the children's cancer ward
An adult in the children's cancer ward
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ann Graham was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer called osteosarcoma
  • She was treated in a pediatric cancer center
  • Her new young friends never talked about cancer; they talked about life
  • Graham: "The secret power of the little superheroes is hope"

Ann Graham first shared her story on CNN iReport. She completed treatment in 2011 for osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that usually develops in teenagers. She is now cancer-free.

(CNN) -- Fear and uncertainty are pretty much your prevailing feelings when facing a serious, life-threatening illness. Your body is the boss, and you can't help but believe that it has turned on you, surrendering to some unseen, nefarious villain.

What you need is hope -- in super doses.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with a rare pediatric bone cancer called osteosarcoma. In my case, it was super-rare, because I was 43.

I went to see Dr. Paul Meyers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, six hours away from our home in upstate New York. At the hospital, my husband and I followed instructions to the B elevators and got off on the eighth floor. The doors opened to a brightly colored playroom, funky lounge chairs and really big fish tanks.

Website turns sick kids into superheroes

Meyers is a pediatric oncologist, and because I had a pediatric cancer (age not withstanding), I would be treated where he worked: in the pediatric cancer center.

Meyers explained, sans sugar-coating, that my cancer was particularly aggressive, and so the treatment would be, too. I explained that I loved my job and my life, and am one tough chick, so I planned on working through it all.

Meyers pressed on. I would endure nine rounds of three types of chemotherapy in a not-so-delicious-chemo cocktail. After three rounds, there would be limb-salvage surgery where they remove my cancerous bones and replace them with titanium. Or amputate.

Ann Graham finished treatment in 2011.
Ann Graham finished treatment in 2011.

I should expect to be fully debilitated by this treatment, Meyers said -- to be in a wheelchair for more than a year, to stop working at my job that I loved, and to close my company that I had worked hard to build. Long-term damage to my hearing, heart, bladder and extremities because of high doses of chemo were to be expected.

At the time, I was unsure of almost everything, including how I felt about being in the Pediatric Day Hospital as a patient.

We learned the hospital would be my home away from home during my nearly yearlong treatment. I spent at least one week of every month with the sickest people you can imagine. Little people with no hair, missing limbs and treacherous looking scars; it was harrowing at first.

Then I became one of them: No hair. Giant, treacherous scar. Wheelchair. Ever-present IV pole, and dusty-rose colored kidney-shaped bowl to throw up in. These were all outward signs of a fraternity of warriors that no one wants to belong to. They all were enduring the same grueling treatment I was -- only they were, on average, 10 years old.

This fraternity of Cancer Avengers was wise in ways beyond their years. When faced with the courage and bravery of these little superheroes, I had to give myself the "Put your big girl pants on" speech more than once.

On my first day of treatment, while I was scrolling through my Facebook feed by the fish tank, two boys next to me started discussing their Make-A-Wish requests. Adam, about 12 years old, had just returned from a rainforest trip and asked what Sam's wish was going to be. Sam said they couldn't give him what he wished for. Adam disagreed, enthusiastically conveying that any wish could be granted. Sam stood firm: It was not possible.

Well, what is it that you want anyway? Adam wanted to know. By now, I also wanted to know.

"I want normal," was Sam's answer. "I want to go to school and basketball practice, complain about my parents and homework and turn 12."

Silence from Adam. Silence all around. Even a superhero knows when he is defeated.

I looked down at my phone, trying to distract myself and read through my tears. A Facebook friend was complaining about turning 44. In the moment, it was like complaining about being too rich or having too much food to eat. My friend had been granted 32 more years than this kid dared dream of living. So had I.

I decided then that I would never complain about getting older. Ever.
Ann Graham

I decided then that I would never complain about getting older. Ever.

I also learned how to take my chemo bravely. When the nurse came to me with needles and IVs in hand, I would shrink away, whine a bit and instinctively cover my port. Then I witnessed 8-year-old Andrew lift his shirt for the nurse's convenience, wince and go back to what he was doing. Just like that.

Big Girl Pants speech quietly recited.

After my limb-salvage surgery, the tumor had not shrunk enough for everyone's comfort, so chemotherapy was upped to two weeks per month. With three daughters, three dogs and my husband's job six hours away, we were allowed to undergo the extra chemo closer to home. This round was done at a more typical oncology center, without funky furniture, fish or kids.

Day one of chemo, I sat with the grownups facing a stunning view of lake and mountains while the drugs took their time dripping into my veins.

Want to know what my fellow patients were talking about? Cancer. It was a justified commiseration. Cancer sucks, no way around it. But by lunchtime, I begged the nurse for either a private room or a therapist -- her choice, because I was seriously starting to get depressed.

I never got depressed with the Cancer Avengers. They never talked about cancer. They talked about friends, music, sports and Spiderman. Hope prevailed in Pediatric Day Hospital.

"Beautifully twisted": Stand up for the littlest cancer patients

Over the last three years, some of the bravest superheroes I know have traded in their capes for angel wings. It's not fair. Pediatric cancer centers should not exist. The soul-twisting pain that the families of these angels endure is too big for me to attempt to describe or even fully understand.

We need to do better for these children. We need more money for the people doing meaningful research to save them.

Not all superheroes wear capes. Some swoop in when you least expect it and save you from the miscreant evildoers that are cancer and despair. The secret power of the little superheroes is hope. Hope slays despair and shines a bright light in the darkest room.

I am grateful to have been witness and beneficiary of their powers.

If you would like to donate money to researchers fighting childhood cancers visit StandUp2Cancer.org or AlexsLemonade.org.

Got a personal essay to share? Send it to iReport and it could be featured on CNN.

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