There are times when there is no question. The strength that you find is not your own. You find it in family, friends, doctors, nurses, even strangers. The strength comes from their prayers and our heavenly Father.
In 1990, our youngest son, Tony — then the age of 3 — was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. He was found to have a tumor just above his ankle in his left tibia. He endured a below-the-knee amputation about five months after the diagnosis, just after he turned four. Tony underwent 1 1/2 years of chemotherapy. He quickly developed severe hearing loss and requires hearing aids. He has since been diagnosed with chemotherapy-induced cardiomyopathy, as well as chronic kidney disease. Both are being treated with daily medications. Tony is very active at church playing his guitar. He attended Criswell Baptist College in Dallas, Texas, and is currently enrolled at Lamar State College in Orange, Texas. He works for his prosthetic practitioner while in school to prepare becoming one himself.
Everyone always asks how we discovered that Tony had cancer. In Tony’s case it was discovered after an injury. Tony was 3 years old. He and his older brother had been wrestling on the couch and Tony bumped his ankle against the coffee table. The next day he was still wincing when I put on his shoe. He started limping. I made an appointment for the following day with our pediatrician. The afternoon of the appointment he fell while he was walking across the lawn. He never cried that I remember, but he couldn’t support his weight. His leg was x-rayed. We were told the leg was broken, and that the x-ray showed a tumor — most probably benign, just above his left ankle. We were sent for a biopsy, which was inconclusive. The cells they found were different from anything any of the doctors had ever seen. We were then sent to M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
We went through a day and a half of x-rays and bone scans, interviews with doctors and blood tests. Tony had been so great about it all. I, on the other hand, was not holding up nearly as well. I was absolutely consumed with fear. I remember a nurse coming in to tell us that they needed one more blood test. I fell apart on the inside but was trying desperately to hold it together so that Tony would be okay with another stick. At Anderson, every time they draw a lab on one of the children the child gets to pick a toy from a toy box. Tony was sitting on my lap while the phlebotomist drew the lab. Tears were beginning to stream down my face, and Tony saw them. After the blood sample was collected, Tony reached in the box and picked up a plastic flower finger ring. “Here Mommy, for you” …followed by a very sweet fish kiss. This was the first glimpse at the strength and courage that God continues to pour into Tony’s heart. With the blood test finished, the wait for a diagnosis began.
I felt sure that the doctors were about to tell us Tony had cancer. But what they couldn’t tell me was the thing I most wanted to know. “Would my baby live?” Only the Father knew that. I didn’t know if I was strong enough to bear up under the doctor’s voice. I knew, however, that His strength can make you stand even in sorrow.
We rushed to the conference area where the doctors held tumor conferences. We had been told that if we made it there we might be able to hear a diagnosis. If we didn’t make it on time, we would have to wait until the next day. We didn’t make it. However, lying on a long polished table, all by itself was a religious tract titled “This is from Me.” I knew who “Me” was, and I knew that tract was mine. I took it with me back to Ronald McDonald House, where we were to stay. We would know nothing until the next day. Two days spent at the hospital…I wasn’t sure I could survive the wait.
The hospital had been such a shock. There were so many ill children. Some of them ran and played in the clinic playroom. But those were not the children that consumed my attention. It was the others. Children missing arms, legs … children so pale their skin appeared translucent like velum paper. Bruised and silent…so still you couldn’t tell they were breathing; others with tumors that cruelly distorted their beautiful faces. There were parents who smiled and encouraged the children and reached out to the other parents – the ones with faces that were empty, with dark circled eyes. Pain impossible to hide, pain so deep it was frightening to look at. They were still and breathless like the children.
The hospital was bad enough. But my first night at the Ronald McDonald house would be something I would never forget. It was like discovering a lost civilization. Yes, I’d seen posters of children with cancer, seen them on talk shows and television ads. I’m sure I’d even seen one or two in the course of my life. But then you look away so quickly, as if looking will confer a possibility that you can’t deal with. When I opened the door to Ronald McDonald House, holding the hand of my 3-year-old son, I knew. I should have looked. I should have stopped, and stopped and spoken. Here I was, feeling like a new member of a lost tribe. A resident of some lost city. I remember calling a friend, and being amazed that you can reach home by phone from this place. I was appalled at the brutality of this disease. I can’t tell you how terrified I was, and we had barely crossed the threshold. Yet, the house was a beehive…. activity everywhere. Here were people cooking, laughing, playing, and talking. Their bravery did not escape me.
It was as if children with disfigurements and IVs and wheelchairs and vomiting were all normal. Even the children, it seemed, believed it. Had they forgotten what it was like just outside the door? I began to feel completely unable to cope. I still could only look for a moment before I had to look away. I did not want to be one of them. My child did not look like one of them. I was terrified. If we stayed much longer, what would we turn into? When we arrived at our room I immediately went into the bathroom. I laid face down on the floor and began to pray, to cry, and to silently scream. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the tract I had found on the table at the hospital. There was a scripture that caught my attention. Isaiah 40:31. “Them that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
The day of the diagnosis came. I remember certain phrases during that conference. Amputation, chemo, side effects that included possibilities of deafness, blindness, organ failure, death. It was November. And for some reason I remember coming out of that conference, holding Tony, and wondering, of all things, what kind of Christmas toys you buy for a child with one leg.
There would be chemotherapy treatments. Long days and nights spent in the hospital and at Ronald McDonald House. Surgery required amputation below Tony’s left knee. Followed by many more months of chemo. We made it through these days with the help of our friends and family. And by the strength we took from Tony’s doctor, Norman Jaffe. We loved, and love, this man dearly. He found us often during those days. He would look at us and say, “Courage my friends, courage.” Just seeing him put steel in our spines. If he said it would be all right, well then, it would be. What a blessing this man has been.
It was the third day after the surgery and I remember wondering what we were in for now. Each day there seemed to be a new test we were expected to take. Sure enough, the nurses announced that today would be the day we would take our child outside the building…something about becoming emotionally adjusted to the reactions of other people. It would prove to be quite an experience.
I saw their reactions as we walked by them. Tony in a wheelchair. My husband, Mark, pushing. Me walking alongside. Lots of whispering, one man cried, most looked away only to look back when they thought we weren’t looking. I was watching. Lots of pity. I hated it. And I was ready to go back inside. If we had to be strong, why couldn’t everybody else? We decided to walk over to Texas Children’s Hospital before returning, in the hopes that we might persuade Tony to eat a hamburger from the McDonald’s there. We headed back, burger and fries in the sack. Tony wasn’t interested.
The sidewalk was too narrow for us to walk together. I was walking behind Tony and Mark when I saw the bird. His black shiny eyes were peaking around the trunk of a huge oak tree. Close…no more than a foot or so away. I wondered if it was tame, and might take a french fry from Tony’s hand… if we could get him close enough. I called them back. The bird came round the tree and stood in front of us, cocking his head to one side. We looked only to see that this particular bird was missing a foot and part of his leg. Exactly like Tony. The foot and left leg were missing in the same place as Tony’s. Tony said, “Mom that bird can’t walk anymore.” The bird hopped within inches of us. Tony was wide eyed. “Mom, can I hop?” “Yes, you can, Tony.” Smile. Huge. The first in a long time. “Mom, but he can’t run and play anymore, huh?” At that, the bird hopped over to some others and they all began flapping their wings. In Tony’s mind, they apparently were running and playing. “He CAN run, and they’re playing with him.” Tony’s still smiling. “Can he fly, mom?” No sooner had he asked, than the bird flew, and perched in a branch just over our heads. “He’s flying!”
I still was trying to believe we were watching this one legged bird when Mark said “That’s the scripture.” “What?” I asked. “The scripture, flying, walking and running-it’s the verse from Isaiah.” It was indeed.
My name is Debbie Quinn, the mother of two adult sons. I am a former teacher who returned to school to become a registered nurse. I now work in the Acute Oncology Unit of a hospital in Beaumont, Texas. My son, Tony Quinn, is 23 years of age and is a 20-year survivor of Osteosarcoma.
Category: Faces of Cancer