When your 5-year-old asks, “What did I do wrong?” by Joby McKenzie

Calvin and Joby in their Lifelabs pajamas

Calvin’s illness was something we never could have anticipated. One weekend everything was normal. He was a healthy kid, skating and doing gymnastics. Then on Sunday he started complaining about a pain in his leg. We thought perhaps he had fallen while playing so we went to the hospital in the early morning, but his pain had subsided and we left without doing any tests.

The next day and night he screamed in pain again and we took him to our family doctor who sent us directly to The Hospital for Sick Children. He obviously had his suspicions but ironically, even though my husband and I both work in healthcare, cancer never crossed our minds. We thought for sure it was a broken bone or worst-case scenario a crazy virus.

On January 31, 2017, we heard the words no parent is ever prepared to hear. Calvin was diagnosed with very high-risk leukemia and given a four-year aggressive protocol.

As you would expect, everything in our family’s world turned upside down. Calvin went from being an active little boy to a very sick patient. My husband Michael and I made drastic changes to our work and home lives to take care of our son. And Calvin’s siblings, Quincie and Payton, had to make many sacrifices as they learned to navigate this “new normal.”

It is impossible to be prepared to tell your 5-year-old he has cancer. He kept asking, “What is happening to me? What did I do wrong?” We are both scientists and it was complicated for us to figure out what to say to him in a way that he would understand. We told him, “There was a mistake in your blood and now we have to get rid of all the bad blood. It was random, like an accident.” For a while that answer wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to know what caused the accident, which there is no good answer for. 

And then of course our other kids had their concerns. When our 7-year-old Payton had a pain, he asked, “Do you think I have cancer?” He heard at school about cancer being hereditary. And the other kids at Calvin’s school had their own questions as well; they wondered if cancer was contagious and why he was losing his hair.

This is where POGO came in. We are lucky here in Ontario because every family is assigned a specialized community cancer nurse when their child is diagnosed with cancer. Tina, our POGO nurse, came to our home to help our family adjust. She visited our kids’ school to address the concerns of the other children and talked to them in age-appropriate terms so they could understand what was happening to Calvin and what the effects of his treatment would be.

These past 12 months have been intense. Helping a family member with cancer is hard; managing cancer for your child breaks you apart. Despite this, we’ve actually been very lucky. I didn’t know how to navigate the healthcare system for my child with leukemia, so our nurse Tina became an important part of our team of support. And while most families have at least one parent who must give up their job, Michael and I have been able to work because our employers have provided us with the flexibility we need to manage Calvin’s treatment.

I work at LifeLabs and my colleagues have been unbelievably supportive of me. In fact Lifelabs is the presenting sponsor of POGO’s Pajamas and Pancakes program, a relevant theme given how much time kids with cancer spend in their pjs. Thank you to my colleagues for supporting our family and for supporting the cause. And thank you POGO for everything you do for kids with cancer and their families. 

It is surprising, but the world keeps spinning even when your child is going through something like this, and our family really appreciates all of the help and encouragement. 

In November 2017, LifeLabs employees had a Pajama Party and invited Joby MacKenzie to talk about her son Calvin’s cancer diagnosis, treatment and support from POGO. Meet them both in this inspiring video Calvin Visits the Lab.

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