When I was 10 months old, I had persistent raspy breathing that everyone thought was a cold or allergies. Then one night I stopped breathing. I was rushed to the hospital, x-rayed and sent to The Hospital for Sick Children where they found a tumour the size of a grapefruit wrapped around two vertebrae in my upper spine—neuroblastoma was the diagnosis. I was rushed into surgery to remove the tumour and a large portion of muscle and tissue out of my back. My chances of surviving were 5 – 10% and my parents were told that if I DID survive, I would likely be paralyzed.
After cobalt radiation treatment, I went into remission at 18 months old and never relapsed. As I grew up, my doctors explained to me the side effects I was experiencing, those that might still come, my inability to have children, and the fact that my life expectancy was not the same as my peers. For the rest of my life, cancer and I will walk together in some form. That is my basic medical story, but it is not my whole story. While most childhood cancer survivors become well adjusted adults, many have an affected sense of self and some may experience depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.
One rarely discussed issue is something I have been through, and most survivors I know have experienced: survivor guilt. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around until you understand where it originates.
Growing up, many of the children who were treated alongside me did not survive; including a
friend who was very special to me. For a long time after he passed I felt guilty for living, in fact
I still do sometimes when another life is lost. But the feelings of responsibility don’t end there.
Logical or not, many survivors feel guilty for the sacrifices our parents had to make, for the social
and emotional challenges our siblings went through, and even for being who we are, rather
than super humans doing extraordinary things. There is a burden to be better than “normal.”
As an adult, the feelings have never really gone away, but I have found ways to deal with them.
As a teenager and young adult, the guilt, coupled with the deeper understanding of my own
mortality and no one to relate to, was very isolating. That is why I try to address the topic with
other childhood cancer survivors, especially the younger generation. It has catalyzed many
interesting and emotional conversations, and in some cases, provided a space for people to
voice something they have never said aloud before.
Leanne Brown has been a speaker at the biannual POGO Survivor Conference and POGO AfterCare Education Day. Although she was told she would never have the physical strength and endurance of her peers, she embraces life by skiing, running, hiking, camping and canoeing, and she even completed a half marathon in 2013. Leanne lives with her two children in Ottawa.