September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month.
If you search my blog from 2007 to the present, there isn’t a blog sometime in September that doesn’t start with that sentence. It’s usually followed by a lot of facts or figures or rants about how underfunded childhood cancer research is.
Not this year. This year I’d like to share what my daughter taught me about childhood cancer.
In late June my daughter came to me and explained she wanted to try out for the school soccer team. I’m not sure who reading this has ever watched soccer but despite its classification of being a non-contact sport it’s a very contact-oriented sport. It’s not like she came to me and asked to run on the track team or swim on the swim team. Not to diminish track or swimming in any way, they are both strenuous sports. But neither track nor swimming involves a 5’7” 135-pound girl running full speed at you attempting to take a ball away without using her hands.
Thinking she would be discouraged I told her she needed to find out more about practices and try-outs. Less than an hour later she told me they practice every night from 5:30-7:00 and try outs are on July 31. This was a Friday, she told me she planned on starting the following Monday.
I sat at my desk trying madly to come up with excuses not to let her play. She had played up until she was 12 and quit when the girls started getting a little more aggressive and a lot bigger than her. I stopped short of just saying NO and I tried to gently point out the challenges she would have to overcome. I should mention at this point that she’s had 2 brain surgeries and multiple surgeries on her left arm, hand, leg and foot to correct some of long-term effects from the brain surgeries. What long-term effects? Oh… yeah, she’s hemiplegic on her left side. And she has NO peripheral vision on her left side either.
I gently reminded her that she would need to run, and she hadn’t been working out regularly – so she should consider that. In my mind I was recalling my son playing soccer in high school where he ran a minimum of a mile daily all summer long including when we were on vacation. She put on some running shoes and came back, fairly quickly and dejected. She had tried to run around our neighborhood which is exactly 1 mile around the outer roads and she said she couldn’t. I told her she could cry for 20 minutes and she needed to pick herself up and move on. Secretly, I was kind of hoping that she would see this obstacle as too much to overcome.
She did exactly what I told her to do. She cried for about 20 minutes, came out of her room with shin guards and cleats and told me to get in the car because practice started in 30 minutes. Sigh….. OK I’ll take her to practice. We arrived and only a handful of girls were there, a few more arrived a little later. The coach, Sarah (who is amazing – by the way), showed up and started running drills. I watched, anticipating that at some point she would realize she was in over her head, but she kept pushing on drill after drill. And not to diminish her success, but I was expecting soccer like I had experienced with my son – cut throat competitive “take-no-prisoners” travel soccer which spilled into the suburban high school level as well. This was a group of high school girls who thought it would be fun to play soccer – which in all honesty is what school sports should be. On senior night, every one of the girls was going to college with a scholarship for music or art or their 4.6 grade point average – none of them mentioned continuing their soccer career.
She was super excited after practice, talking non-stop and when I asked if she wanted to go back tomorrow she said “YES!” So, we practiced, night after night up to the day of tryouts. Sarah had talked to her about her limitations and they came to an understanding about what she was and wasn’t capable of doing. Their school is a small urban college prep academy with a focus on fine arts and music – so they only have a Varsity Girls soccer team. But the coach is a heads-up kind of lady who realized that she could have the underclassmen play on a “B” team and the upperclassmen play on the “A” team and the “B” players could gain experience as necessary. Teagan, with all her hard work and challenges, made the Varsity “B” team playing defensive back.
I was proud, but still very nervous and skeptical. Sure, the girls on her team weren’t “do or die” soccer players but what about the teams they would play against? I have nail bitten my way through several games while she plays about 10-20 minutes as a relief for her “A” team counterpart. And she’s good, she knows where to play on the field, she doesn’t back down from a challenge – she has proved me wrong. For all I know that has been her motivation the whole time. And she loves it and she’s having a great time being part of the team.
My “learning moment” however didn’t really come until August 31st. I received a group email from her coach stating that she had been nominated by a teammate to be the “Man of the Match.” She didn’t win because she scored a goal or blocked a goal or for that matter even set foot on the field. One of the upperclassmen’s locker had jammed and she couldn’t get to her jersey, shin guards or cleats. She gave the upperclassmen her uniform, shin guards and cleats so that she could play. Her coach pointed out in the email that she always gives 100%, never misses games or practices and was “a stellar example of a perfect player.”
I cried a bit that morning. There were happy tears because I was proud of her for her accomplishment. But there were guilty tears too. I was ashamed that I had assumed she wasn’t capable of achieving this goal because of her disability. In all fairness I was mostly concerned for her safety because she trips over air on a good day and you can literally be standing next to her on her left side and she can’t see you. Neither of which lend to success in a sport like soccer. But she was determined, and she showed me and a lot of people she’s got a lot of resolve packed into a very small package.
I guess I didn’t learn anything “new.” Mostly, I forgot that she is more than just her brain tumor. She is not defined by the tumor she had when she was five and all the damage it left behind. She is in control of who she is and who she’s going to be. She is writing her story and the tumor was a chapter but it’s not the whole book.
I won’t forget that anymore, I promise.
PS.. really not loving the “soccer mom” title again, jus’ sayin’