“Mom,” Sebastian – the oldest of my three boys – said in his most serious tone. “I’m ready to go outside again.”
I have always known Sebastian to be an old soul, but that moment – more than two years ago, now – caught me by surprise. It’s amazing just how much you can learn from a six-year-old.
Just a month earlier, on Sunday, July 27, 2014, Sebastian was diagnosed with T-Cell Leukemia. Until you experience it first hand, nothing can prepare you for the immediacy of cancer. There is no on ramp, no training. One day you are playing at the beach, and the next you find yourself making arrangements to spend 30 consecutive days quarantined in a hospital room, desperately trying to distract your little boy from the pain and fear that accompanies pediatric cancer treatments.
Our first day in the cancer ward was the most difficult, and it was one of the only times I can remember Sebastian breaking down – but it wasn’t because of a needle or any physical pain. He just missed his brothers. He missed his friends. He missed his home. He missed being a happy kid.
At that moment, I made a pledge – no matter how bleak things got, and no matter how anxious I felt, Sebastian was going to live a happy life. Whatever it took, we were going to keep a smile on his face.
That also meant I couldn’t leave his side. Spending each day and night in the hospital with Sebastian meant that my husband was our family’s sole earner, but he, too, had to take time off from work to care for our other two sons at home, both under the age of two. Needless to say, it was a difficult time for us – but as long as Sebastian was happy, we would deal with our financial burdens down the road. He was our priority.
After a month’s worth of treatment, Sebastian was released and began recovering at home. He barely had the strength to walk when we left the hospital, and we fully prepared for a long journey back to the energetic, fun-loving Sebastian we knew before his diagnosis.
Then, one day when I least expected it, Sebastian gave me the greatest gift I will ever know – HOPE.
“Mom, I’m ready to go outside again.”
Sometimes we pass off the way kids think as “simplistic” – but, with one single sentence, Sebastian showed me something I could not see. I was too busy worrying about the road ahead – the things I cannot control – to see that happiness is present everywhere around me. Around us all. To Sebastian, the only thing standing in the way of happiness was our front door – he just needed help unlocking it. He spent the entire day playing in the park, laughing at everything, and smiling ear-to-ear. Picking right back up where he left off. Living a happy life.
Around the beginning of year-two of Sebastian’s outpatient treatment, our family’s financial burdens began to catch up with us – particularly during one difficult month. Things were getting tight and we really needed help with our mortgage payment.
One day, a friend at the hospital told me about the Joe Andruzzi Foundation – a non-profit organization that not only provides financial assistance to cancer families in need, but also organizes fun events called “(Up)Beat Outings” to help distract patients from their diagnosis. Within hours I was working with a social worker at the hospital to apply, and just days later a check came in the mail to help us pay part of our monthly mortgage bill. Then, the Foundation invited our family to the circus in Boston and surprised Sebastian with the chance to be an honorary ringleader for the night. He still talks about it to this day.
Watching the joy on Sebastian’s face that night was a “wow moment” for me – I remember thinking, they just get it. As a parent caring for a sick child while also trying to make ends meet, there is nothing in the world you want more than for your kid to feel like a kid, even if just for a moment. The Joe Andruzzi Foundation helped us save our house so that our family could live a happy life together in it. They reinforced our belief in positivity and the power each of us holds over the fears and anxieties that accompany a cancer diagnosis. They reminded us that as long as hope exists, the road to a happy life awaits.
On September 6, 2016, Sebastian received his final treatment, bringing an end to a two-year-long journey we never expected to be a part of. That’s the thing about cancer: you don’t choose it, it chooses you – but that doesn’t give it the right to regulate your happiness. Cancer attempted to control our lives for more than two years; it failed. It tried threaten our financial future; it couldn’t. It tried to tell Sebastian he couldn’t roar like a lion at the circus; he did. It tried to strip us of our hope; it never will.
We decide when we’re ready to “go outside again.” We, alone, make those choices – and we choose to live a happy life.
You can, too – just start with a smile.
Written by Michelle Calado, Joe Andruzzi Foundation grant recipient
Help make a difference in the lives of others with the Live a Happy Life Charm Bangle. 20% of the purchase price supports the Joe Andruzzi Foundation to provide help, hope, and a reason to smile for cancer patients and their families by contributing financial and emotional support when it is needed most.