Written by Cayt Marchael and spoken at the 2023 Night for the Fight
When my son Leo was just three years old, he looked at me and asked “Mama, is my baby sister going to die?” That was a moment I’ll never forget. Three-year-olds ask a lot of questions, but I was left speechless by this one. So, I did what every brave, courageous “warrior mama” does…I lied. Honestly, I did not know if Olive would live to celebrate her first birthday. But it was not his burden to carry, it was mine. I vowed to do everything in my power to shield Leo from the harsh reality that was crashing down on our family. So I swallowed my tears, hugged him tight and I told him “No baby, Sissy is not going to die, she’s going to be just fine.”
“We were in survival mode.”
The cancer wave hit our entire family—it cast us on an isolated island. Yet as parents it was our responsibility to maintain a sense of normalcy for our children. Our normal changed daily, yet we kept on going with smiles on our faces that masked our shattered hearts. We were in “survival mode.”
My husband Bret and I would “divide and conquer” each day. He worked and then spent every ounce of quality time with Leo, while I was on the front lines at the hospital with Olive. This was during Covid, and the isolation was so profound I began to feel completely lost in our fight.
The one thing I hear the most when people find out my daughter has battled cancer, is “Oh my God, I can’t imagine, I don’t know how you do it.” My response to them is simple… “There is no other option.”
You see, I used to be watching from the outside…my heart would ache hearing stories about families who were living the unimaginable, and then all of a sudden… we became the unimaginable story.
It was a Tuesday, July 6th, 2021 just one month shy of her first birthday, our daughter Olive was diagnosed with Stage 1 Wilms tumor—a cancer of the kidneys.
Olive has dealt with medical complications since birth. At one routine checkup, her doctors noticed a cyst, but they told us not to be concerned. Months later, the cyst had grown to the size of a golf ball. I’ll never forget when her urologist came to us and said “We spoke too soon. It actually is cancer. I’m so sorry.” We were in complete shock.
There she was, bouncing up and down listening to Baby Shark while holding onto the rails of her hospital crib, with IVs and drains and bandages dangling from her tiny body, this innocent baby had just received a death sentence.
That summer we traded in beach days for 19 weeks of chemo, clinic appointments, ER visits, blood transfusions, hospital stays, antibiotics on top of antibiotics, MRIs… and the constant fear of the unknown.
The poison pumped into Olive’s little body that was supposed to save her was burning holes in her feet and toes. How do you stop a 1-year-old from learning how to walk? Give them chemo.
You know what blew my mind? People would say things like “Oh, you got lucky. If you’re going to get cancer, this is a good one to get. Oh, she’s just a baby, don’t worry, she won’t remember it…”
But I will never be able to forget it.
“It may be her story, but we have the responsibility to tell it so that there can be change.”
Someday she’s going to ask me how she got that “scratch” on her tummy, the scar from her port and I won’t be able to lie this time. It may be her story, but we have the responsibility to tell it so that there can be change.
So families that will walk through the fire after us will know they are not alone. Even for kids who survive, the battle is never over. We will be forever scarred by pediatric cancer—pun intended. But there is one thing stronger than fear, and that is HOPE.
Hope and Grace. I have smiled through tears and found strength where there was not any left… because I was covered in grace. On the days I was drowning, crying out to God, “Why us? Why our babies?” pleading to trade places with her, grace still found its way in…
What hope looks like
“You are not alone.”
Through the nurses who danced with my baby just so I could use the restroom, to the parking attendant who didn’t charge me when I lost my ticket at the hospital. To the cancer moms I met who understood my heart without having to say a word, and our parents who never left our sides. In the bright blue backpack that would literally save us countless times (and that we still use to this day), with a hand written note inside reading “You are not alone.” And in the 12 strangers who showed up in our backyard and built a playset my babies could play on every single day so that they didn’t have to face the burden of pediatric cancer, they could simply just play and be together.
Roc Solid came into our lives and for the first time, I felt like I had the strength to start picking up the pieces. The hope they gave us was so much more than a playset, they reminded me that there was still good in the world, and it was ok to accept it. Cancer and joy are not two words you would typically pair together, but that’s the lens the Roc Solid family helped me start looking through.
“It’s as simple as that…we GET to.”
Olive recently started preschool and her teacher pulled me aside after school one day and said, “Hey you know Olive had a really hard time using her listening ears today, and she wasn’t sharing her toys, and when we tried to talk to her about it, she started laughing at us…” I made it back to the car, called my husband and we both started laughing and I said to him “How amazing is this? Olive got in trouble at school!”
I know most parents would be disappointed or upset but I was just so happy she GETS to go to school! And it’s as simple as that… we GET to. So much of our daily lives “pre diagnosis” was lived with a “we HAVE to” mentality.
The laundry can wait, the dishes will get done…the list goes on and on… but for now the kids can sleep in my bed as long as they want, or climb all over me while I’m trying to work from home, tugging and yelling, “mama, mama look at this” and I’ll stop and look because it’s one more opportunity for me to hold them tighter, savor the smell of their skin, count their freckles, and kiss their little cherub cheeks because now I’m completely aware that I GET to.
Don’t get me wrong, the stresses of daily life still affect me, and things are far from perfect. I still lose my cool, get frustrated at my kids, and yell and cry when I’m feeling burned out.
Cancer didn’t make the “messy” disappear—as a matter of fact, it illuminated the mess so much more. Now there is this beaming spotlight on just how much I took for granted every day, how much emphasis I put on the wrong things.
Life is forever changed.
Next month, my daughter will be declared in “remission” for one full year.
Sometimes I feel more lost than I did when we were in the trenches of treatment. Life is forever changed. I don’t even know what normal means anymore, but you know what? Cheers to creating a new normal one day at a time, because it’s literally all we’ve got and what we GET to do!
An author once said, “Celebration brings joy into life, and joy makes us strong.”
Because of the hope given to my family I was able to see the joy in this journey. But what if we were able to see joy in the thousand tiny things we get to celebrate daily? If we celebrated the small, we would experience more joy. And that joy could make us strong.
I urge you to see the joy that will come in the morning. I promise you—it is there.
Roc Solid gives so much more than blue backpacks and playsets. Cancer may be unpredictable, but HOPE, hope is guaranteed.