I was seven years old, living in South Korea, when I was diagnosed with a brain tumour and treated with a 12-hour surgery at Seoul National University Hospital. I can still remember the atmosphere in the operating room—it was cold and not a friendly setting for kids. As a young boy in an adult hospital it was very scary, but my dad was with me and comforted me until I fell asleep. The surgeon was not able to remove the entire tumour because it was pressing against my optic nerve, so I have been left with low vision and weakness on the left side of my body.
My family moved to Canada when I was 10 years old because my parents wanted better opportunities and better medical care for me. Shortly after we arrived, I developed severe headaches and was hospitalized at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton. I was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, an accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid within my brain, likely related to my tumour. This typically causes increased pressure inside the skull. The setting of this hospital was very different from the one I was treated at in South Korea. The staff at McMaster are used to children and made me feel very comfortable about my treatment and medical procedures. I received a shunt implant that will remain in me for the rest of my life. A shunt is a tube that is inserted to divert the fluid away from my brain and, luckily, I have lived headache-free since then.
As part of my follow-up care, I receive MRIs every six months at a POGO AfterCare Clinic. In 2010, the test showed my tumour had grown. I received 70 cycles of chemo over an 18-month period. It shrunk the tumour a bit and it has remained stable ever since. I guess because of all my experiences in childhood, I always knew I wanted to work with children when I grew up. When I was ready to apply to post-secondary, I started to work with a POGO academic and vocational counsellor who helped me with the transition from high school to college. She helped me with things like adapting to new academic pressures and getting special accommodations because of my vision and mobility impairments.
I am proud to say I have graduated from Mohawk College with a degree in Child and Youth Care and I got a job at the YMCA afterschool program. I facilitate activities for kids in Grades 3 and 4. I love it because the kids are honest and energetic. I recently applied for and was offered the position of workshop facilitator for POGO’s Survivor-to-Survivor Network where I will use my personal experience to lead discussions on topics that are relevant to other childhood cancer survivors. Topics include employment, education, advocacy and self-disclosure. Self-disclosure can be a tough topic to tackle. The workshop revolves around how childhood cancer survivors disclose information about their disease, its treatment and resulting health complications to future employers and other people they are close to. It focuses on changing the language around any impairments they have, to describing what they CAN do. As survivors, we have overcome many difficult situations in life and we are stronger for it, more resilient. We have a lot to offer employers who are willing to see past our disabilities. I am excited for this opportunity to be a POGO workshop facilitator because I want to empower survivors to overcome the barriers that have resulted from their cancer and not let these challenges hinder what they can achieve in life. Because of the support I received from POGO academic and vocational counsellors, I was accepted to college, I have a diploma and I was able to gain relevant work experience. I just want the same for other survivors.
By Sam Baik
Adapted from Yasmin Nasrati’s speech at the the annual Cadillac Fairview Run
When I was a kid, my big brother was diagnosed with colon cancer and later with metastatic adenocarcinoma of the duodenum. Sadly he passed away. He was only 12 years old.
Shortly after his death, his oncologist at SickKids Hospital suggested that all of his siblings get genetic testing. That is when my family learned that I have an inherited gene mutation, which increases my risk of acquiring malignancies and other serious health concerns. And so began my lifelong annual cancer screening.
I was 7 years old.
Because of the regular screenings, they discovered my brain tumour early. At age 13, I received 33 daily radiation treatments and I was cured….per se, but I have certain side effects because of it.
This might shock you, but I am actually a four-time cancer survivor.
At age 15, I was diagnosed with cancer of my small bowel— and treated with surgery and 12 cycles of chemotherapy.
When I turned 18, I aged-out of the pediatric system. This was a very stressful time because all of the staff at SickKids Hospital are trained to take care of children, both physically and emotionally, so I felt very safe. At 18, I was still really young and didn’t feel ready to leave the children’s hospital.
My regular cancer screenings continued at Princess Margaret Hospital. At age 22, I was diagnosed and treated for colorectal cancer and a year later, breast cancer.
In addition to screening, I am monitored at the POGO AfterCare Clinic on a regular basis for late effects. Actually all survivors are monitored, not just those with a genetic mutation. This is because even though the survival rate is up to 86%, as many as 60% of young adults will face a lifetime of complications that are a direct result of their childhood cancer or the treatment they received.
One of these complications is learning difficulties, including slowed rate of information processing, poor working memory, increased forgetfulness and more. These are all things that I struggle with on a daily basis.
I am 23 years old, and at this stage in my life, my education is my main priority, but for a while, my success at school was at risk. It was through my nurse practitioner at the AfterCare clinic that I was introduced to my POGO counsellor.
POGO’s academic and vocational counselling program is a donor-funded program that provides personalized support for childhood cancer survivors who need extra help to transition from high school on to college, university or into a vocational program.
Counsellors work one-on-one with survivors to provide them with special accommodations to complete tests and schoolwork; to help them match their career goals with their abilities; to facilitate scholarships targeted at survivors; and link survivors with the appropriate disability services and supports within colleges, universities or the community.
I am proud to say that I am now a college graduate and currently a student in York University’s Sociology and Human Rights Programs.
By Yasmin Nasrati
I recently had the opportunity to represent both the Hospital for Sick Children and POGO at the annual Cadillac Fairview Run/Walk, which raised $250,000 through sponsorship and employee participation.
So, recently, I volunteered at my daughter’s school. We went on a field trip. During the bus ride back to school I got into a conversation with Selena’s teacher who of course knows of her past at SickKids. She mentioned to me her daughter was sick; that she had a bladder infection. She mentioned how her daughter was screaming in pain and discomfort.
The next comment was one I have heard a million times before. She said:
“I was so terrified and am so sad. How, Natasha, did you deal with Selena having cancer?”
Funny thing is I just looked back at her. For the first time, words didn’t flow out in my usual strong mom spiel of, “Well, you know when you don’t have a choice you just handle it,” type of response. Instead I was more held back, a shiver came over me, words didn’t make sense in my head because I don’t really know how I got through it. I was possessed for those years, something bigger than me took me and drove me through the storm.
Now that it’s over and we can breathe and have reached the 3-year post-treatment marker, what I am not doing is handling it as well as I did before. I am one big emotional wreck, holding it together by a string, taking each day as it comes and trying to find my way all over again.
All this to say “strong mom” means many things; it’s as individual as we all are. We all handle things the best we can. From a tummy ache, toothache, bladder infection to cancer, when our kids get sick and are hurting, we, the moms, hurt for them. Some illnesses we can get over quickly; they come and they go; life threatening, critical illness for some can take much longer to heal from as the hurt is deeper than the surface. It boils in our veins as it triggers directly into our core and our hearts.
With today being Mothers’ Day, I send love and light to all moms, especially those whose babies made it to heaven. I know some of you. I feel your pain yet cannot ever know what it feels like to walk in those shoes. How does a mother, any mother, do it? Hmmm, good question; the honest answer still unwritten, I suppose.
By Natasha Koss
Natasha will be running in support of POGO at the Toronto Women’s half marathon on May 26. Natasha started running to help curb her anxiety when Selena was diagnosed with cancer. Please support her fundraising efforts at the link below!
My name is Lia Goh. I am 12 years old and I am a cancer survivor.
When I was three years old, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I went through three years of treatments, including chemotherapy. I lost all of my hair; it almost grew back blonde!! And I received more blood transfusions than I can remember.
In fact, I don’t remember a lot about my cancer or its treatment.
Like how my parents had to take leave from work and my family rented an apartment in Toronto because I spent most of that first year in the hospital. Or how I was in isolation for a lot of that year. Or how I spent so much time in bed that my muscles atrophied, and my dad had to carry me everywhere.
I am old enough now to realize how lucky I am. I am lucky to have the support and love of family and friends. I am lucky that my parents had the freedom and the financial means to take the time off work to be with me. Many families don’t have that luxury. I am lucky to have benefitted, and I will continue to benefit, from the support of some incredible organizations, such as POGO.
And my dad always says that I am especially lucky to have benefitted from so many kids that came before me. From the research that has been done, and so many incredible services that have been created to support kids with cancer, their families and survivors like me.
From the time my brother and I were little, my dad would read a poem to us called “The Champion’s Creed.” In it, there is a line that has always stuck with me:, “Dedicate yourself to a mighty purpose.”
I can’t think of anything more mighty than helping to beat childhood cancer. So, I feel responsible to do as much as I can for all the kids who are fighting this battle now and all who will be fighting it in the future.
Watch Lia deliver her full speech here. Video courtesy of Natasha McKenty.
I am 23 years old, a college graduate and a current student in York University’s Sociology and Human Rights programs. My education is very important to me but it can be overwhelming sometimes. The workload combined with rising debt is stressful, while splitting my spare time between volunteering and family and friends has become difficult to balance.
I’m also a four-time cancer survivor. I had my first diagnosis, a brain tumour, at age 13. I’ve also had colon, colorectal and, most recently, breast cancer. At age 12, my brother was diagnosed with colon cancer and later with metastatic adenocarcinoma of the duodenum. Because screening was never done and we weren’t aware of our genetic disorder, my brother passed away from colon cancer. I have an inherited gene mutation, which increases my lifelong risk of acquiring malignancies and an ongoing anticipation of serious health concerns.
My life is filled with medical appointments, medical treatments, school work and other everyday commitments, and so I have always tried to be strong and brave, pushing my feelings down so I could just keep moving forward. But there is a price: fatigue, change in appetite, poor concentration, feelings of restlessness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, irritability/lack of patience, dry mouth and shortness of breath/tightness of the chest, to name a few. These are all prominent when there are multiple things happening at the same time in my life.
Until recently, I just interpreted these events as “stressful,” but what I didn’t realize until I learned more about the symptoms of depression and anxiety, is that what I was feeling was not just stress, but a blend of mental health issues.
These symptoms don’t just affect me, they take a toll on the people around me. And while I know this is the time when I need to acknowledge what I am going through and ask for help, I often feel that I don’t have any options or that others won’t understand.
I realize that I play the biggest role in my own self-care. Yes, I am going through many issues, medically and psychologically, but what I’ve experienced so far has only made me stronger. So how can I use that strength to achieve a better quality of life? How can I minimize the stress in my life and increase the things that bring me joy, like volunteering? How do I find the time to connect with other survivors who understand what I am going through, when I feel exhausted from the medical appointments and school work? And how do I maintain a hopeful outlook when I know that I may continue to battle various cancers for the rest of my life?
To be honest, I haven’t exactly figured it out. But I do know that it is a process that I need to consciously work on each day, and that my psychological well-being is worth fighting for.
POGO’s Childhood Cancer Care Plan has as one of five goals integrated psychosocial care at all stages of the cancer journey. A key objective is to ensure integration of psychosocial care into standardized care planning to improve quality of life for patients, families and survivors like Yasmin. Learn more.