Learning Compassion from Those Affected by Cancer

August 23, 2013 | by Cecilia Choy

Cecilia ChoyWe all work so much, 7 days a week, sometimes even on holidays, because it’s our job. And sometimes, when all the experiments are working, we find something amazing and everything is on schedule, we actually love it, right? But with all the hours spent running experiments and reading, sometimes I like to— or need to — reflect on my motivations for why I work here. I’d like to describe that motivation in this blog post.

I recently took a vacation from lab work to be a camp counselor at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a camp for kids affected by cancer, either as patients or as siblings of patients. Whenever I go up the San Jacinto Mountains for camp, I think of everything I want to do for these kids and how much I want to help make their lives just a little bit better. But I’ll admit outright that I go partly for selfish reasons, because every time I come back down the mountain, I do feel a little bit foolish (and a tad selfish), realizing that they changed my life more than I could possibly change theirs. One example of this is a girl named Lisa (names have been changed to preserve anonymity), to whom this post is dedicated.  Two years ago, I had the privilege of being a cabin counselor to 11- and 12-year-old girls, including Lisa. Lisa had two types of cancer by the time she was 12. In one short week, Lisa had formed a bond with the rest of the girls and even helped one girl understand a brother’s recent diagnosis. The counselors wanted to make sure she had fun during her first camp session; we even helped her make her first s’more over a campfire. But it really didn’t compare to what I witnessed and was inspired by—her altruism. I still remember the last day of that camp session, when we three cabin counselors were saying tearful goodbyes. Lisa laughed and told us to “stop crying because [we’ll] see each other next year.” I got a phone call from camp nine months later, while I was at lab, saying she unfortunately passed away.

I heard another counselor say about camp (quite accurately, I might add), “Outside looking in, you can’t understand it, but inside looking out, you can’t explain it.” Camp’s experiences create this ineffable feeling — partially a combination of hope, comfort and gratefulness. Initially, I wanted to post a picture of the many campers, but since some of them might be patients here, I refrained for privacy reasons and posted a picture of the fabulous hairstyle my girls gave me two years ago. While I was hoping to have a full camp session again this year filled with six full days of memories, unfortunately, my camp session was cut much too short by the mountain fires. Although the firefighters tried to keep us there for as long as they could, we had to evacuate. But I’m still grateful for those three days I was able to spend at camp.

The first time I went to camp six years ago, I was surprised by the maturity and altruism of kids who had already gone through so much. Older siblings came by each morning to check up on their younger sisters and brothers who were away from home for the first time. Even a cabin of younger children consciously walked slower so the girl who had a weak left side and limped didn’t feel left behind. Instead of isolating a child in a wheelchair, the other kids ensured everyone felt included, whether it was pushing the wheelchair or merely making sure they had a partner at the camp dance. This year, in the first hour I was at camp, one of my own girls did not hesitate to help another counselor lift a patient’s wheelchair onto a ramp. She wasn’t even asked to help. I couldn’t help smiling and tearing up; watching that event was just yet another reminder of who these kids were.

When I am away from camp, back in the real world (well, as “real world” as it can be for us students), and experiments just aren’t working or life gets frustrating, I gather inspiration from my wall, looking at a picture of kids who, even through everything they have endured, still carry themselves with so much class, maturity and altruism. The kids and the families I meet give me so many reasons to be thankful. I knew from the first year I started volunteering they would have whatever I could give back; right now, I can give back with my time. But I do realize I’ll never be able to repay fully for the lessons they’ve taught me. I will forever be grateful to the parents for everything they do, and the neighbors, friends and relatives who are ready to babysit siblings in the middle of the night because the parents have to go to the hospital. And I’ll always be thankful to the other Camp Ronald McDonald counselors who are constantly working to help others — through their kindness and caring, they embody the characteristics I wish to emulate. But most of all, words cannot express the extent of gratitude I feel to the children affected by cancer who constantly inspire and motivate me through their own actions to, simply put, do more and be better.

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