This past Sunday was National Cancer Survivors Day. That sentence alone carries a lot of emotion for so many people. I'm grateful to have so many cancer survivors among my friends and family, people I love dearly and am so lucky to have more time with. Yet, every year, my mind still drifts back to Sam - so strong, so brave, the definition of a "survivor " Taken too soon in spite of it all.
My brother, Sam, was 12 years old when a minor head injury during a hockey game marked the beginning of our world forever changing. What first seemed to be a concussion turned out to be bleeding on the brain, which turned out to be a tumor, which we soon learned was cancer. Gliobastoma Multiforme. GBM. A rapidly growing, rapidly spreading brain tumor.
Brain Surgery. Radiation. Chemotherapy. The eye of the storm in the form of a year of remission that seemed too good to be true. Three years of fighting - his own words, held true to his very last breath: Never Stop Fighting.
Since he's been gone, memories are so precious. I often find myself wracking my brain for just one more - just one more moment that perhaps I forgot. I've tried to think back to the beginning: can I remember the first time I saw him? A fresh new baby, placed in my own tiny arms for the first time, the beginning of a bond that even death couldn't quite part? I can't seem to bring it to the surface. There's a desperation for more, a guilt when the memories fade.
The things I remember most vividly, more than moments, are the things that made him...him. The Sam things. His pretty blue eyes, framed with dark lashes - his smile always sparkled in them. The way he laughed hard - tears in his eyes, nostrils flaring. The way he would lay his head on my shoulder - he always told me it was the "coziest" shoulder out there. His kind, gentle, loyal heart - forever the friend of those who needed one the most, his indignation at even the thought of injustice. The way he loved our mama - she could do no wrong in his eyes.
I remember the moment I knew the cancer was back, the way I somehow knew in that moment that we were going to lose him. I had brought him with me to the midnight showing of the last Harry Potter movie - the last, his first midnight show, and he was so excited. He started getting sick halfway through, and as we drove home that night my heart was in my stomach. Dread.
When he died, I remember holding his hand, studying his fingers, trying not to forget. I held his hand again one more time before we laid him to rest. Fifteen years old, and so full of ambition.
The dialogue around cancer, and the battle, has troubled me since. The way we tell people that the way to beat it is to be strong. The reality is that everyone, whether a survivor or victim of this disease, is so strong, so brave. The difference is luck, timing, and, frankly, that isn't good enough for me.
Sam never did stop fighting, true to his words. He selflessly elected to donate his brain to research when he learned his condition was terminal, to help save other children from his own fate. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised in his name. He has made a difference in this fight.
If there is anything I can do to honor his memory, it is to do all I can to arm our medical teams with treatments that can overcome the constraints of luck and timing, so that every strong, brave, beautiful soul can call themselves a survivor.
My brother will never meet his niece, his chair will be vacant at my wedding, I'll never see him fall in love, watch our children play together at our parents home. But someone else will. A child fighting today, can live that life with our help.
In my brother's name, I'm donating today to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation, because every little effort counts. I hope that today, if you are so inclined, you might also make a donation to this, or another research foundation.
Together, we can even the odds, take luck out of the equation, and fill our world with survivors.
Sammy, we'll Never Stop Fighting.