I handed a few toys to the cashier. She smiled and asked me whose birthday it was. I paused and said…actually this is for my cousin’s son—he was just diagnosed with leukemia yesterday. Saying those words out loud was physically painful. Our family’s new reality seems surreal. I never dreamed I’d be walking around a toy store looking for gifts to comfort and distract my cousin’s darling, smiley, 21-month-old son. But here we are.
We all know how heartbreaking and scary cancer is. We’re aware of the devastation it causes and the havoc it reeks on thousands of families every single day. When this disease chooses to present in a child, a baby, it rips your heart out and reminds you of how fragile life is.
I come from a big, Greek family. We are incredibly close. Our friends even know who our cousins are. All our lives are intertwined in a beautiful way. Everyone is always amazed at the tight bond we share with one another, often not letting a day go by without being in contact. It’s all I’ve known my whole life. At times, many of us take this closeness for granted—because it’s our norm. When the going gets tough though, our family rallies like no other.
When we got the call March 19th that my cousin Nicole’s sweet boy Lukas was diagnosed with ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) my mom and I let out deep guttural cries. It felt like an out of body experience. The tears poured down our faces. Life stopped in that moment. My husband had to run our 23-month-old son upstairs so he wouldn’t witness our despair. Our boys are only eight weeks apart. Our boys were supposed to have a play date two days later. But now, sweet Lukas was getting chemo in the hospital instead.
That’s how quickly it happened. That’s how fast my cousin’s life changed and flipped upside down. In the blink of a moment—she went from having two perfectly healthy sons—to finding out her baby was in for the fight of his life. A fight that would involve 3.5 years of chemotherapy. A fight that would involve countless nights in the hospital, setbacks, highs and lows with dire consequences, and having to watch your child take on the beast that is cancer.
I sat in the room while the oncologist walked through the treatment plan with my cousin, her husband and my aunt. She spoke gently and calmly. Her confidence was comforting. When she handed over a packet of stapled information with Lukas’s name on the top…followed by (“Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia” below it) it felt like a punch to the gut. The words on the pages looked more like a college syllabus for an upcoming school year. Each day and treatment listed seemed overwhelming and scary. It’s going to be a long road ahead. A journey like no other. A battle that no child or parent should ever have to fight. A burden too cumbersome for anyone’s shoulders.
When Lukas received his chemo infusion that day, I looked at my cousin Nicole. She held her baby tightly, sobbing in silence as he looked around the room, unaware of the poison getting pumped through his veins. It killed me to see her go through this. It’s truly the unthinkable to watch someone you love hurt so badly as they take on the unknown.
Once you become a parent, these type of tragedies and health crises hit you in a whole different way. They remind us that no one is invincible, and you never know when the tide is going to change. As a parent, your child getting cancer is your worst nightmare. We all wish we could take it from him. Lukas is so young, so helpless. But he’s also so much more.
Lukas is resilient. Lukas is strong. Lukas is brave. Lukas is a fighter. This 25-pound boy, with so much life to live is not going to let cancer take him down. Lukas is going to show each and every one of us the power of prayer, the importance of faith and the strength we can find within ourselves even when we feel weak. He’s going to inspire and implore us to be better. He’s going to give life a whole new perspective. He’s going to thrive. Lukas is going to navigate these unknown waters and open our eyes to the beauty of a feel-good day.
And someday we’re all going to look back on these dark, difficult days and look at him and wonder how we got to this place. Someday Lukas will be free of cancer. Someday he’ll be a little boy who once had cancer. But for now, and always, he’s a warrior. Not only him, but his mom, dad and brother. The war paint is on. The first week of battle is almost over. And from this point forward they and we are all forever changed.