Why I relay for cancer

One student's battle with leukemia

MacLean was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was six years old.
Credit: 
Supplied by Emma MacLean

After months of bruising, pain and sickness the doctors concluded I had cancer. It was two weeks after my sixth birthday. 

I vividly remember the day when my parents brought me to the children’s hospital in Ottawa to be tested. The doctors told my parents I had acute lymphoblastic leukemia and I’d have to endure two-and-a-half years of intense chemotherapy.  

I lived in the hospital for the first month until I was able to fight off infections without the help of an IV. I was then put on an experimental protocol, which was based on periods of intense chemotherapy. 

Because I was young when I received my diagnosis, I didn’t fully comprehend what was ahead of me.

One of my most traumatizing memories was when I needed an MRI. I had just gotten my ears pierced and I was very excited about it all. I soon found out I couldn’t wear earrings in the scan and I was worried that the holes would close up. 

When the MRI was finished, I ran out of the room as fast as I could so my nurse and my mom could force the earrings back in. Cancer had already taken my hair and I didn’t want it to take my ear piercings too. 

During chemo, I had to grow up fast. I knew medical jargon before I knew my multiplication tables, so I remember that it was hard to relate to other kids. 

I was part of a dance class at the end of my treatment, but the other kids didn’t understand why I had no hair. They thought I had head lice and stayed away from me. I knew that what I was going through wasn’t normal and I had to accept that the other kids didn’t understand.  

The worst treatment I had to endure was Asparaginase, which were needles that injected chemo directly into the muscles of my legs. They were incredibly painful and I struggled to walk for days afterwards. I was a pretty stubborn kid; I avoided wheelchairs, hospital gowns and Band-aids as much as I could, but the wheelchair was a necessity after my injections.

As a result of the research done during my treatment, patients now only need to endure two Asparaginase treatments compared to the 12 I needed. 

Cancer didn’t end for me after I was cured I carried anxiety with me for years afterwards. I grew up obsessing over staying healthy and avoiding germs. When my immune system was compromised, normally harmless germs were life threatening. Pneumonia resulted in a week stay in the hospital on IV antibiotics. I felt unsafe without my hospital mask and gloves to protect me from the germs that we encounter every day. 

I’m incredibly lucky: I have no long-term side effects from the daily rounds of chemotherapy I took for two-and-a-half years. Cancer is no longer something that I need think about on a regular basis, though it’s a large part of who I am today.

But while my story has a happy ending, a lot of cancer patients don’t have one. 

Cancer is something that touches us all. Two out of five Canadians will develop cancer in their lifetime and one in four Canadians are expected to die from it. Cancer can affect anyone, which is why I participate in Relay for Life events, in memory of all the friends and family I lost due to this horrible disease. 

Relay for Life is an overnight event that raises money for the Canadian Cancer Society. I was introduced to this initiative in high school and was blown away by the passion and enthusiasm I saw as people came together for such an important cause.

MacLean with other Relay for Life Queen’s executives. 

When I came to Queen’s, I was thrilled to find a Relay for Life event here and I’ve been involved ever since. Relay for Life has become incredibly important to me because it’s my way of continuing the fight against the horrible disease that took my friends and family, like Tori and Kim. 

Tori was diagnosed with neuroblastoma a year before me at the age of six. Neuroblastoma is a horrible childhood cancer with very poor survival rates. Tori endured difficult treatment, including rounds of chemo, surgery, a stem cell transplant and radiation. 

The Christmas after her ninth birthday, her family switched their focus to keeping her comfortable and that January her battle finally came to an end. Together, Tori and I were the poster kids for a fundraiser in Ottawa and we used to bake every Wednesday in the kitchen at the hospital.

Kim, another friend of mine, was a strong and brave teenager who battled cancer for several years. High school was an incredibly different experience for her as it was for me, and she never got to walk across a stage and receive a diploma. 

I relay for them as well as my other friends and family who’ve battled cancer. 

As a cancer survivor I relied on a community to support me through the most difficult of times — including my parents, brother, grandparents, family, friends, neighbours, teachers and the amazing doctors and nurses at the children’s hospital in Ottawa.

Today, I’m a third-year Concurrent Education student, and it’s because I wasn’t alone in this fight. 

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