This is the latest op-ed submitted by Soudary Kittivong-Greenbaum.
About every three minutes, one person in the U.S. is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Meaning, last year, roughly 156,420 people in the U.S. were diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma. According to the American Cancer Society, leukemia is the most common cancers in kids and teens, but child leukemia is considered rare.
To me, it’s one child too prevalent.
Last month, Immanuel, my younger cousin’s child, was diagnosed with leukemia. He is seven. Immanuel lives in my hometown in Alaska. He loves his little sister, and his mom and dad. Loves playing with play doh, and anything related to cars. He moved to a new school this year. It’s hard to think of what’s ahead and not feel a weight for him.
I first met Immanuel when he was just six months, on a visit back to Anchorage. This was a few years before I had my own child. My cousin Jenny held him up under each of his arms, handing him to me, his arms outstretched, legs kicking, dangling. I can still hear the coos coming out of his sweet, crooked smile.
Caucasians and Latinos see more cases than African Americans, much of the literature quotes, most likely taken from the studies, research commissioned on these populations. That’s not the case for many Asian Americans outside of the larger groups, much less Lao, and children of mixed heritages. The stats just aren’t there. Immanuel is Lao, El Salvadorian and white.
Blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or myelodysplastic syndromes, can affect cells in the blood, bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes and other parts of the lymphatic system. An estimated 1,185,053 people in the US are living with, or are in remission from, a blood cancer. An estimated 327,520 people are living with, or in remission from, leukemia in the US.
Immanuel was diagnosed at the ER. Jenny brought him back after antibiotics weren’t working for what she thought was a bad case of the flu everyone in the house had had. It wasn’t.
When you are raised Lao you have this gnawing sense of obligation to be there, to do something to help your loved one, when needed, wherever they happen to be. For our community and cancer support, it becomes even more important, because during times of crisis, we look to each other.
News of his diagnosis was heartbreaking to us all. Most certainly the toughest for my cousin, full-time working mom to two. For me, it brought, fear, pain, for the road ahead. And I felt guilt, for not being there for Jenny, and for Immanuel, thousands of miles away.
I searched for answers about child cancer, causes, treatments, statistics. Statistics are numbers. Numbers are people. You can understand this conceptually, but you feel it when it hits home – hard. In the gut.
Early on his diagnosis, Jenny posted picture of Immanuel in an update from a GoFundMe site that his 1st grade teacher had set up. I saw that same smile when I first met him, felt his energy, felt the fight that he was going to put up. I looked into his eyes and it was like he was telling me, “I can do this, Aunty.”
You see, Immanuel doesn’t care what the studies say about diagnosis and prevalence. He doesn’t care what the doctors say about treatments, how long. He cares about their touch, their warmth when they administer chemo. And he doesn’t need my little voice of fear, pain, guilt. At this moment, he just needs healing, his mom, his dad, his sister, and all his loved ones sending him strength. And I just care about helping Immanuel get through this, and getting back to school, back to play doh, his toy cars, rough housing with his sister.
When I look at Immanuel, I see Jenny, his mom. It’s the face of a fighter. But going at child leukemia alone, as a patient, as a caregiver – that’s just not possible. What I whisper back is, “I know you can. I am here with you.”
For more about Immanuel’s fight to beat cancer:
Cancer support organizations serving Asian Americans: A2M http://www.a3mhope.org
Asian American Donor Program: http://www.aadp.org/about/our-story/