Where it all began...
It is difficult to put into words the thoughts and feelings when someone you love is diagnosed with cancer. You freeze in shock. Your mind stops. You can’t speak. You can’t hear. It feels like you are trapped in your worst nightmare. The only way I know how to relate the feeling is to reference 9/11; a date nearly everyone knows the significance of. When people think of 9/11, their memories race back to where they were and what they were doing on that tragic date. The date and moment a person and family are informed of a cancer diagnosis, that particular date becomes engraved in their minds and hearts. For our family, that date was 2/5/2004. This is the date my sister, Constance, was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease. It was also the day after she turned 17. She was a junior in high school. Her focus was on the upcoming senior year, SATs and college.
At this time, I was 18 weeks pregnant with my second baby. My oldest child was 16 months old. On February 5, 2004, I attended the routine ultrasound for the baby. The same day Constance received her diagnosis, I was told my baby would be born deformed, misshapen and should be terminated. The “towers” of our lives all seemed to crumble around us with all the news we received that day.
I was unable to comprehend what I was told about my baby. Constance is 10 ½ years younger than me, so in a sense, I feel like she is my baby too. I was mentally and emotionally ripped apart. Between tears and sleepless nights, I couldn’t stop thinking about the future of my baby and my baby sister. Our family began to forge a war against cancer. I vowed to stand by my unborn baby and absorb myself in my sister. Our war was fought with prayers, love and the wonderful medical staff she soon had.
With all of this news, everyone in the family tried to do what they could do best while battling the emotions and fatigue. Our parents tried to keep life as normal as possible. Unfortunately, the bad news continued as our dad soon after was laid off from work. Another factor in the battle lines was added.
I attended each of Constance’s chemotherapy sessions and watched each vial get pumped into her. During these long hours, I had a lot of time to sit, think and look at others around us. I couldn’t help but think about the other patients, their thoughts, their lives and their feelings. I wondered what their lives were like when they went home. Who was there to care for them? What kind of support did they have? I thought of other children, their treatments and experiences at school and with friends. I felt the need to “lend my heart” to all of these individuals and their families.
We tried to maintain Constance's lifestyle as much as possible. She remained a full-time student, but we also made sure she stayed as active as possible with her school friends, church youth group and ethnic dance group. Of course, this wasn’t an easy time. She was sick and weak at times. She still had the “typical” teenage stresses to endure, but now she also had the added anxiety over things like hair and preparing for senior pictures as well as the emotional and physical changes she was experiencing.
The months went by. In July, I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who was perfectly healthy. Constance continued her treatments. Chemotherapy did not kill her cancer. We were nervous as to what options we had left. God blessed us with Dr. Stanley Marks as her oncologist, and he continued his fight in the battle. She finally won her battle with another drug treatment.
Our prayers were answered, and this treatment put her into remission. Thankfully, this is where she remains! Constance graduated high school in 2005, went on to complete college and has a career that she thoroughly enjoys. I went on to have my third baby in 2006 but never gave up the thoughts of Lending Hearts. I wanted to provide an outlet for children and adolescents, with cancer and in remission from cancer, to come and participate in educational and recreational activities. I envisioned the opportunity to provide an “escape” to their daily stresses. Whenever Constance smiled, the entire family smiled. This is what I wanted to do for other youth. I wanted to put a smile on their faces and let it translate back to the rest of their families. If even for a moment, a child needs to feel a sense of release; to feel a sense of hope; to feel a sense of joy and life. This comes in the way of engaging and enriching peer support activities with exposures to such areas as the creative, performing and visual arts, world cultures, exercise, nutrition and many of the other tremendous resources the region has to offer.
After seven years, in 2011, I decided to share my thoughts about Lending Hearts. The result of that has yielded the love, support and outreach of family, friends, our board of directors and advisory board members, Allegheny Health Network, Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield, UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, UPMC Health Plan, UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and many, many organizations and businesses in the region. Because of this support, we were able to create and offer the first-ever, pediatric and young adult cancer-focused organization.
As you can see through the following image, the past ten years have been filled with tremendous growth for Lending Hearts. It has truly been a gift and privilege to offer our services and see the benefit on so many. With that, we know there is so much more for us to do and that it is possible with the love and support of so many. Together, we can make the lives of individuals living with cancer better. Thank you for lending your heart so we may continue to lend ours.