This Is Our Year—the Year After My Daughter’s Cancer Diagnosis

The blue enamel of the coffee cup was comfortably warm in my hands, exuding a soothing heat that radiated out from my lap as steam slowly wafted up from the dark liquid found within. I took another long sip and shifted my position in the cloth camp chair, stretching my legs out in front of me as they balanced on the log I was using as a footstool. I could hear the rustling of leaves behind me indicating chipmunks, squirrels, and other woodland creatures beginning their morning routines, as well. I grinned as I glanced around the campground, watching the moms and dads of each little family troupe emerge from their campers, RVs, and tents to begin their morning rituals.

This was my favorite time of the day. The sun was not yet peeking over the horizon, but it was coming. I heard stirring from the end of our camping trailer just as the light began hitting the cloth-covered plastic window. The pitter patter of tiny feet and a soft shuffle at the door told me who was awake. I reached over and opened the door latch to be greeted by Hazel, who was sleepily grinning ear to ear. Behind her stood her mother, yawning, but smiling as Hazel leaped from the top step of the camper into my now-awaiting arms. She snuggled into my chest as I wrapped her up in an affectionate hug and we slumped back down into my chair to watch the world continue to wake up.

Sitting in that chair, I was struck by the glaring difference a single year of life can make. Hazel wore soft pink pajamas, which only 12 months ago she couldn’t fit in because the steroids she was on at the time had ballooned her weight 50 percent beyond her normal. Her once completely bald white head was now covered with soft auburn hair, curly and wispy on the sides near her ears. Freckles adorned her cheeks like tiny brown jewels leading to the deep dimples that showed up when she laughed. Her beautiful blue eyes, once dulled by high doses of chemotherapy and ongoing hospital visits, now twinkled brightly.

I smiled and allowed a single tear to escape my eye and slide down my cheek because Hazel was alive—and not just alive, but thriving. Once confined to a single sanitized room in our house or the bland white walls of the hospital, Hazel was now spending weeks outside, riding bikes, hiking in the woods, swimming…just living, as a kid should.

Hazel’s 2018 has been profoundly different from last year. In April 2017, Hazel was diagnosed with Pre-B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, and our family joined a club we never intended or wanted to join: the club of childhood cancer. We were forced into it and are now part of the club, or community, which is hundreds of thousands strong. We all walk different paths, have different color skin, worship differently, talk differently, and learn differently, but we live the same. These people are my people.

Cancer has touched each of our lives, stealing from us the moments and memories that could have been, ripping loved ones from our clutches, and driving our sense of hope deep down into the darkness of despair that threatens to swallow our being. Cancer is ugly and awful and unforgiving, and yet it is so much worse than can ever be imagined.grateful

But for all the horror that cancer holds, it has still created something beautiful. Nearly immediately upon Hazel’s diagnosis, love began pouring out onto our family. This came in the form of financial, emotional, and spiritual care; simple kindnesses bestowed by complete strangers; and ongoing support from organizations to help make our struggle a little more bearable.

For one solid year, I have been amazed at the incredible breadth the cancer community spans. I have attended benefits, fundraisers, and rallies, many of which directly benefited Hazel. My kids have received Christmas gifts from local families because we had neither time nor energy to purchase and wrap our own. Organizations such as the National Children’s Cancer Society, American Cancer Society, and BraVa have paid for travel expenses, chemotherapy treatments, and hotel stays. A Kid Again has provided opportunities for my children to be kids, offering tickets to theme parks, sporting events, and local entertainment. While none of this can cure her, it does offer a bit of solace from the ongoing drudgery of chemotherapy, surgeries, and hospital stays.

Cancer has taken much from me and much from my little girl, but people have given so much back. No one can walk this path alone and survive. It takes the arms of many to hold up the broken bodies of the few. But I am grateful—grateful to see how far Hazel and our family have come within a year. Last year was a wash, but this year is ours, and we are going to take it.

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About the Author | Nat Miller

Nat Miller is the father of Hazel and husband to Elizabeth. Hazel, 3, was diagnosed with Pre-B Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia in April of 2017 and is in continued high-dose chemotherapy treatment. Hazel has three older siblings: Paul, Gideon, and Aurora. Nat and his family live in a small town in south central Ohio.

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