"Childhood Cancer is not pink and it’s not pretty. My daughter was not a 'soldier' she was not a 'warrior' She was a very scared 16 year old girl, a little girl with her whole life ahead of her."
There's is nothing in this world that can possibly get you through the death of your child. You never forget the pain, you never forget sitting by them as they lay on the hospital bed, and you can never erase the memories of watching your child go through the worst anyone can go through. The only thing you can do after they pass away is continue to stay strong and brave for your child even if they are no longer here, as this father Tom Mitchell did after he lost his daughter, Shayla, to cancer.
"Time definitely does not heal ALL wounds. I still haven't gotten over it. I haven't pushed past it or gone through it," Tom wrote on Facebook. "I haven't made peace with it or accepted it. I haven't moved on or let it go. It still hasn't gotten any better it's just gotten, well, it's just gotten ...different."
It all began with Shayla telling her father that she wasn't feeling too well and thinking that it was just a sinus infection. When she asked her father if he would take her to the doctor's, he said, “Sure baby, I’ll pick you up after school tomorrow we’ll grab some dinner afterwards if you want.”
They soon found out that the sinus infection was actually something extremely different and was about to change both their lives drastically. "It was actually a huge cancerous tumor that had been taking up two thirds of her little chest. It had caused one of her lungs to collapse," he wrote.
That was the beginning of two difficult but brave years for the father and daughter. "We did have dinner that night, although neither of us was very hungry, we mostly just pushed our food around our plates in a room on the pediatric oncology unit of Fairfax Hospital." Tom wrote. "We didn’t know it at the time but we would wind up having our next 450 meals in that hospital as well as hundreds and hundreds of additional meals over the next couple of years."
Tom knew that watching her daughter battle with stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease would be tough, but he needed to be brave for his little girl. He promised her that every single night she spent in the hospital, he would be right beside her. And he promised her that he would be brave for as long as she would be. And so began the chemotherapy sessions, radiation treatments, 5 heart surgeries, failed bone marrow transplant procedure attempt, many many complications, and more blood transfusions than Tom can even remember.
"I held her hair when she threw up, I held her hand when her hair fell out, and we held each other a lot," Tom wrote. "We cussed a lot, and we cried a lot but interestingly enough we laughed even more…often we talked about the wind and about feathers and about being brave."
Through all the pain, Shayla still managed to look out for her father, too. "Shayla never quit fighting and she still managed to find time to take pretty damned good care of me."
Finally, the dreaded day came where he had to tell his teenage daughter that she wasn't going to make it. "How in the world was I supposed to have this conversation with my darling daughter?" he wrote. "How in the world was I going to be brave enough to tell my daughter she was going to die?"
He knew that even if he was afraid, he still had to be brave for her. "I did of course have that conversation with her, and as unbelievable as this may sound it turned out to be the most amazing, beautiful, magical, wonderful conversation that I’ve ever had in my entire life and one that I hope you NEVER EVER have to have" he wrote.
When Shayla whispered to her daddy and asked "Am I still brave Dad?" he realized something. "I placed my hands on her face and looked deep into her eyes; my baby was tired and she had fought so bravely for so long…but she was so very tired…," he added, "She was still brave alright but as I looked into her eyes I began to realize something: this whole time she hadn’t been staying brave for herself, she had been staying brave for ME!!"
A few days later, Shayla passed away after a hard fight against childhood cancer. And the pain a parent who has outlived their children feels can hardly ever be described in words. In a Facebook post about the reality of childhood cancer, Tom wrote:
"Childhood Cancer is not pink and it’s not pretty. My daughter was not a 'soldier' she was not a 'warrior' She was a very scared 16 year old girl, a little girl with her whole life ahead of her. She had dreams and hopes and a heart full of love and the prettiest smile you have ever seen. She was very brave, yes, but she shouldn't have had to have been in fact she really had no choice in the matter. When you are a teenager and your father has to tell you that you are going to die, brave is the ONLY choice you have."
Tom is still not over it and probably never will be. But he will not stop being brave. He set up Stillbrave, which is a non-profit that "was started to finish what Shayla could not". It helps in supporting children with cancer and their families by providing non-medical supportive care. And Tom does everything he can to raise donations, be brave for the children, and raise awareness about how little funds are segregated for research in childhood cancer.
He continues to fight and he will never stop being brave for his daughter. Whether it's bills, gas, chores around the house, throwing birthday parties, and even just babysitting, the organization comes through for the families. Tom knows first-hand how devastating it can be and he will continue doing this for the families who have to watch their child go through cancer.
“Our lives have been turned upside down,” Tom told Today. “We are cancer moms and dads. We hold a puke bucket in one hand and a sandwich in the other. It’s a travesty that we’re the greatest country in the world and we have to endure these things and money for funding is left to knuckleheads like me and lemonade stands.” But he will still never stop for the many, many children and the parents that are going through what he went through.
Take a look at his TEDx talk and you will never see childhood cancer in the same way ever again.