Imagine hearing that your child had a bad case of asthma to later learn that it was a football-size tumor pressing against her lungs that was affecting her breathing. “No way, ever, ever, ever – even in your worst nightmare – could you think that could happen to your child.” The statement “she has a tumor” seemed surreal, impossible, and certainly inconceivable – a tumor? Her daughter, Samantha, was only 4 years old.
When the elevator opened onto the 7th floor of UCSF, Diana felt like she was walking into a obscure dream. Seeing so many bald children and teenagers rolling around their IV stands, she knew at that moment that her life and her family’s life had changed forever. While she was still in shock and barely comprehended the doctor’s diagnosis of only a day ago, she knew then that she would have to be strong.
Diana and her husband had agreed early in their marriage that they would never have a babysitter take care of their kids. As a result, her husband worked a graveyard shift and Diana’s days began at 6:00 a.m. At least one of them was always available. Now when she looked into her husband’s eyes, she knew that they would be challenged to maintain some consistency for their other children, while being there wholeheartedly for Samantha.
Samantha was first diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a type of kidney cancer that occurs in children; and, later with a second tumor in her lung. The diagnosis constituted stage four cancer. Diana and her husband began a journey that no family ever expects or could ever be prepared for. Samantha’s first treatment would include 14 continuous days of chemotherapy. They took their one-year old son and drove to and from the hospital daily. They never left Samantha’s sight and yet they made it home by the end of each day to be there for the other children. “My husband and I put any differences we had aside and just became one,” she said.
Samantha went through 30 weeks of chemotherapy and surgery over the course of the next year. The family traveled to and from the hospital from their home in the Salinas Valley, sometimes for a 15 minute visit and other times for a 45 minute treatment. Diana was fortunate to have the support of her employer and as time passed, she worked on Saturdays and at home with a BlackBerry and laptop to be with her other children while she and her husband shifted their care for Samantha. The two older children, one in high school and the other in middle school, were deeply affected by Samantha’s diagnosis and they too needed support.
It wasn’t until someone at work told the family about the services of Jacob’s Heart that they realized there was support for them at home. While at the hospital, they were surrounded by doctors, interns and social workers. Knowing about Jacob’s Heart came at a good time. Diana commented, “It was a blessing in disguise knowing that in my hometown there was such a great organization with great people who could help!”
The family immediately received gas cards to assist them with the financial burdens created by the hospital visits. Diana remarked that at that time everything was so stressful, and the financial support lessened at least some of the stress felt from the demanding and challenging cancer-related experiences they encountered.
Diana and Samantha joined the support groups available at the Salinas office. She said of the parent support group, “We shared the same story with the treatments and how it affected our families. We found a place where we could talk and be understood.” Samantha loved the arts and crafts, scissors, tape and glue – anything she worked with during the Art from the Heart program that offered her a nonverbal form of self-expression. They also participated in the Adopt-A-Family program which Diana referred to as “over the top!” Her family was adopted by a produce company that brought them such joy and made their holiday season undoubtedly “over the top” that year.
Today, thankfully Samantha’s cancer is in remission and she is doing very well. “It’s so very emotional thinking that she’s made it!” said Diana. Sending her off to Kindergarten this August was a teary moment for Diana. Samantha on the other hand entered school like any other child, excited to be there and ready to meet new friends – and for her, to begin a new and momentous journey.
Diana continues to receive services through Jacob’s Heart and is grateful for the “connection” and understanding she receives from other families and the staff. When Samantha has even a slight cough, it still sends chills down her spine with fear that it might be coming back. There are frightening feelings that don’t go away quickly or easily.
Enjoying getting life back to “normal” with her loving family, Diana is moving on. She has started her own business selling a colorful line of comfortable hats for girls and boys. The hats are inspired from Samantha’s loss of hair during her chemo treatments. Samantha’s Hats is a charitable business with proceeds going to cancer organizations, such as Jacob’s Heart. She has found an outlet to express herself, to give back and make a difference – something of great importance to Diana as she recovers from what seemed like an eternity of worry and anguish to a place of hope and compassion!