Physical, emotional effects take hold from trauma and treatment of deadly disease
Those two words are perhaps some of the most coveted words of the 21st century.
The Canadian Cancer Society says that 41 per cent of females and 46 per cent of males in Canada will develop a type of cancer in their lifetime. That’s almost half of the population.
And one of those was 11-year-old Adam Verheyde. He was diagnosed with an adult form of leukemia on March 8, 2004, after suffering from excruciating pain in his legs. His mother Suzanne says, “We weren’t even remotely thinking cancer.”
In 2011, Statistics Canada named cancer the leading cause of death. It claimed 72,476 Canadians in that year alone.
But Adam escaped the deadly disease. After nearly a year of intense chemotherapy that culminated in full-body radiation and a bone marrow transplant, his body was completely free of cancer cells. And after showing no signs of relapse for five years, he was pronounced cancer-free in 2010.
But as mother Suzanne says, “I don’t think you’re ever cancer-free.”
Karine Chalifour is a program director for Young Adults Cancer Canada, a support organization for young adults with cancer. She says, “Cancer, like all the effects of everything you get, does not finish with the last drop of chemo you get. What happens after your treatment is technically over, for many people, is almost like the beginning of a journey.”
Advances in medical science have raised the cancer cure rate to an average of 75 per cent for children. But that means there are many more survivors dealing with short- and long-term effects of both the cancer and their treatment.
Kelly Kerr, a program manager for a camp for kids with cancer called Camp Kindle, says she has seen physical, developmental and psychological after-effects in kids who have beat cancer.
And leukemia-survivor Adam is no exception.
Now 20 years old, Adam works several jobs, drives a gas-guzzling truck and is “80 per cent” sure that he wants to be a kindergarten teacher. He says he’s “just living the dream, I guess.”
But woven in the fabric of his dream are the constant reminders, the inerasable signs of his fight with cancer.
There’s the black baseball hat that he wears to cover his mostly bald head. His hair never grew back.
His sharp cheekbones and thin arms may never fill out because radiation destroyed his thyroid.
And he’s at the doctors at least once every six months to give up vials of his blood for testing.
Chalifour of Young Adults Cancer Canada says, “A lot of people will expect young adults, first of all because they are young — they look good and [their] hair is growing back — people expect for them to kind of get back on track and get back to where they were, which is not always possible.”
Some effects are embedded in their everyday lives.
Cancer didn’t just leave Adam’s body damaged. It spread into his family life, pushing his brother Sean away.
“When I was going through my transplant it was his graduating year. I felt like I really, really took away from my brother’s big year at high school,” Adam says.
His mother, Suzanne, also recognizes the lasting effects of the disease on her other child.
She explains that in face of Adam’s fight for his life, Sean was “kind of forgotten.” They missed their oldest son’s basketball games and thought he could take care of himself.
Now Sean lives seven hours away with his wife and children.
“I think maybe that’s the biggest effect,” Suzanne says. “We aren’t as close as I would like us to be.
“The family relationship with Sean was affected more than it should have been.”
And there’s always fear.
Suzanne says, “You’ve always got that worry that it’s going to come back.”
“You always have that thought, you know if he’s not feeling well, ‘What is it? Is it just a cold? Do you have a fever?’ You go through a hundred and ten questions.”
Father Barry remembers doing research when Adam was first diagnosed and realizing that the cancer could come back. He says, “I shouldn’t say you’re always a cancer patient, but there is a risk, more of a risk than if you have never been.”
But despite the high costs of cancer, the Verheydes agree that the deadly disease has moulded their outlook on life for the better.
Suzanne says that the problems they face now seem trivial compared to cancer. She says, “We put this floor in and two minutes later it’s got this big dent in it. But it’s only a floor, it’s no big deal.
“So I think we are a lot more relaxed than we used to be.”
Barry agrees. “Your family, your health, that’s far more important and I don’t think we looked at it that way before.”
For Adam, cancer has given him the chance to meet friends through organizations like Kids Cancer Care and Camp Kindle. As a child battling cancer, he was able to find support for his family and meet other cancer victims like himself through the organizations.
Camp Kindle’s Kerr says that connecting with others going through cancer can help deal with the immediate and after-effects of the trauma. She says, “People don’t understand what they are going through. So when they come to camp they don’t have to explain that. Everyone explores and understands.”
Now, Adam gives back to the organization through volunteering with kids who face cancer just like he did 10 years ago.
He says, “I don’t know what it’s like to not be alive, but I know what it’s like to be on the downhill and wake up every morning in the hospital bed not being able to do anything. I’m really glad that I have the gift of life.”