Board Member Carol Hancock tells of her own experience with childhood cancer.
Being the youngest of nine, Paul went everywhere with us, from baseball practice to recitals to school plays. He was a good sport, rarely complaining about being dragged to yet one more place for one more event. But one time he was different. That time we were off to a Little League game, and suddenly Paul started whining. “Carry me,” he said. “Please carry me.” “But Paul,” I said, “you’re three and a half now. You’re a big boy, too big for me to carry.”
The next day, he woke up with a fever and swollen glands. Must be the flu, I told myself, and we headed to the doctor’s office. That night, the doctor called us. “We got Paul’s blood test results,” he said, “and we think he might have leukemia. It’s just a suspicion, but . . . .”
That’s when our nightmare began. My husband David tried to reassure me. He said, “The doctor said he suspects. He didn’t say he knows.” I shot back, “If he called, he doesn’t just suspect.”
After more blood tests, the diagnosis was confirmed. My little boy had acute myelogenous leukemia.
We knew nothing about leukemia, white cell counts, platelets. All I could think was, “How could this be happening? These things happen to other people, not to us!”
Everything happened so fast. One day I thought my son has the flu, and the next thing I know he’s a patient on Division 28, what was then the oncology unit at Children’s Hospital. We were supposed to go to my in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary party the night he was admitted. What were we supposed to do? How could we just leave Paul? And what about our other children? How were we supposed to tell them about Paul? I felt so lost and so afraid with nowhere to turn. I talked to Paul’s oncologist, Dr. Sallan. I rambled, but he understood. “Mrs. Hancock,” he said, “we’ll take good care of Paul here. Take your other children to the party. And tomorrow, bring them all to my office. I’ll help you tell them about Paul.”
That’s what we did. The next day, we packed our eight other kids into the car, ranging in ages from eight to sixteen, and headed to Division 28. Dr. Sallan met us in the playroom. That’s where we all sat, on kiddie chairs around the kiddie table. And slowly, quietly, Dr. Sallan explained about Paul and his disease-what it was and what it wasn’t. He told them it’s not contagious, not hereditary. He assured them that nothing they said or did made Paul sick. He explained that saying “get lost” didn’t make it happen. And even though Paul is sick, they’ll sometimes still get mad at him, and that’s okay. Dr. Sallan thought of everything that could go through a kid’s head. He got us through that day. He got us through many days.
When Paul was diagnosed more than 25 years ago, there was little in the way of treatment. Bone marrow transplants were a new procedure, and that was our one real hope for Paul. But who could donate the bone marrow? Everyone in our family was tested, and our second youngest, Christopher, was a perfect match. So we were set. A bed would be ready for Paul after Christmas. We were nervous, but excited. We had hope.
In late December, we learned that Paul couldn’t have the transplant after all and that he only had six weeks to live. Dr. Sallan helped us break the news to our three youngest kids. He explained that sometimes people with cancer make it and sometimes they don’t.
Those last weeks were so hard for all of us, especially the kids. They adored Paul. He was the youngest, their baby. “Paul Goofy” they called him, and he’d smile, “I’m not Paul Goofy. I’m Paul Gregory.”
He was always in pain. He was so weak that he could barely walk. He was in and out of the hospital those last few weeks. It was so hard for him there and he had been through so much already-radiation, needles, endless IVs, five spinal taps in two weeks. Whenever we’d get near the hospital, he’d say, “I’m not going upstairs, am I, Mama?” “I’m sorry, honey,” I would always tell him, “I can’t promise you anything.”
On February 8, 1976, we wrapped Paul up in a blanket and drove to the hospital for the last time. When we got to there, Paul cried, “I don’t want to go upstairs, Mamma. I don’t want to go upstairs.” I held Paul while he got his pain medication, and then I said, “Don’t worry, honey, we’re going home now.”
Paul died that night at home, surrounded by family who loved him.
If Paul had lived, he’d be in his forties today. But life took a different turn for him, for us all.
Two months after Paul died, I started volunteering at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and I didn’t leave for 22 years. At my retirement party, the doctor who treated Paul approached me. This time I didn’t call him “Dr. Sallan,” I called him “Steve.”
“Steve,” I said, “I was hoping you’d speak at my party.” He put his arm around me and said, “Carol, today I didn’t want to stand before you. I wanted to stand with you.” Then he hugged me, and I felt so much for this man who had been Paul’s doctor and who was now my colleague and friend.
“You ended where you began,” he told me.
Carol Hancock is a founding member of the Friends of the Jimmy Fund and of the House. She retired from the Board of Directors in 2013, but continues to be an active volunteer.