Pediatric Cancer: A Parent’s Worst Nightmare
Pediatric cancer sucks. There is really no other way to say it. Most people know someone who has personally experienced the tragedy of loss or fighting pediatric cancer. And while pediatric cancer makes up less than 1% of all cancer diagnoses each year, it is the second leading cause of death in children.
According to the American Cancer Society, the most common kinds of pediatric cancers are leukemia, brain and spinal cord tumors, neuroblastoma, Wilms tumor and lymphoma. These diseases alone will take the lives of approximately 1,800 children each year.
It’s safe to say that a parent’s worst nightmare is finding out that their child has been diagnosed with cancer.
And yet every day in the United States alone nearly 42 families per day are receiving this news.
Living with Cancer
While doctors and medical facilities attempt to understand more about pediatric cancer, children are learning to live with it.
And while doctors and medical teams attempt to defeat pediatric cancer in their patients, families are learning to adapt.
For many families with children diagnosed with pediatric cancer treatment is not only costly but also incredibly inconvenient. Often children have to travel long distances to receive treatments. One or more caregivers might also have to leave employment in order to facilitate such transportation. This clearly has an impact on a family’s financial ability to fight the cancer itself.
Even if a family has a hospital nearby, the time and energy required for treatment might still have the same results. Children with pediatric cancer might be admitted for days, weeks or even years. Oftentimes caregivers will stand watch in shifts, adding to the overall weight of the situation. The quality of life steadily decreases for all family members the longer the battle continues.
However, not all days in the hospital have to be dark days for families of children diagnosed with pediatric cancer. Every now and then somebody special shows up to brighten a child’s day.
A Modern Superhero
Matthew is one such person who is committed to bringing smiles to children admitted to hospitals in southern Illinois. You could call him a modern superhero of sorts. He shows up to the Children’s Hospital of Illinois in regular intervals dressed up as Captain America. Every now and then he is able to recruit others to dress as additional superhero characters.
But no matter which character is en vogue on any particular visit, one thing is certain: Matthew will draw smiles out of everyone.
- Children lying in hospital beds, often unable to sit up to see him but eager to meet their favorite superhero nonetheless.
- Parents and caregivers standing watch with their children, hoping a moment like this will bring hope to a desperate situation.
- Nurses and doctors treating and caring for the children at all hours of the day.
- Everyday adults walking the halls of the hospital on any given day, visiting family and friends or on routine work assignments.
Matthew doesn’t realize it, but he is a superhero – to children, parents, nurses and doctors and hospital visitors.
Becoming a Superhero
But Matthew was never trying to be a superhero. He was just trying to do his part to make the best of a pretty bad situation for others. It started in 2017 when he visited the Children’s Hospital of Illinois dressed as Captain America. He had no personal experience with pediatric cancer. He just thought it would be a great idea if children in the hospital could meet a superhero.
And while he brought smiles to the children, their smiles also brought him joy and touched his heart. In the middle of what can be painful and difficult treatment, Matthew found that the children became lost in the excitement of meeting a superhero. And in their delight they asked him if he was friends with other superheroes.
“Of course,” he responded with a smile.
And from that first visit Matthew began his quest to recruit his family and friends to dress as other superhero characters. On his second visit his brother-in-law appeared as Spiderman the enthusiasm throughout the hospital spread. In fact a representative from the hospital contacted Matthew shortly thereafter and asked him if he had access to even more costumes.
He didn’t. But he would do his best to find them.
That is how Matthew became a superhero.
Meeting The Growing Need for Superheroes
The hospital then made a special list of characters the children hoped to meet. With limited resources of his own, yet fully supported by his wife and his own children, Matthew began fundraising to purchase higher quality costumes that could be used many times by various friends and family members.
We met Matthew at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois to shadow his superhero experience. On that day two friends that Matthew had recruited from his work joined him. They each had worked a very early morning shift but showed no signs of fatigue as they geared up for the visitation.
As each of the men changed into their costumes we watched the passing crowds in the hospital grow in excitement. There was no way to hide superheroes at the Children’s Hospital of Illinois!
By the time we stepped back into the lobby we were swarmed with people wanting to take photos with the superheroes. Gracefully and with great patience, Matthew and his superhero entourage indulged each request.
For the next two hours we went up and down hospital floors, one room to the next, as the superheroes entered the rooms of children suffering through difficult and often terminal disease. Every time, without exception, they were greeted with smiles and cheers. One child actually ran out into the hall after them to continue to engage with his favorite hero, Spiderman.
Doctors and nurses asked for photographs with the superheroes. Parents gave them hugs and offers of gratitude. Children smiled, laughed and, for a brief moment, forgot about the horrors of treatment that had become commonplace in their lives.
Children Are Resilient
At the end of the day we asked Matthew what he has learned the most from this experience.
“Children are the most resilient of us,” he answered. “You or I go to the doctor and complain about this pain or that pain. Or we say we don’t want to go to work because we don’t feel good. But these kids are facing worse things than you or I know and they go through it all with a smile, day in and day out.”
Of course that hit us like a ton of bricks. It was true. We noticed throughout the day how each of the children, and their family members, had normalized the experience of living through pediatric cancer and other serious illness. Yet this life, tied explicitly to the care and treatment of a hospital, should be anything but normal for a child.
Children should be outside laughing and playing games.
Children should be in school making friends and memories for a lifetime.
Children should be growing stronger and taller every day eating delicious home-cooked meals around the dinner table.
Children should not be living, and dying, in hospital beds.
Even Superheroes Need Help Sometimes
Before we left Matthew and his friends for the day we asked one last question. As our journey across America is to discover and share stories like Matthew’s – stories that change our perception of what is ordinary and possible and inspire us to live with greater purpose – we can’t help but want to do more.
What do you need most Matthew?
“Honestly,” he said without a pause, “I need more people to come to the hospital and wear costumes with me. I need people to share in this experience to help increase the impact we have on these kids’ lives.”
And while Matthew does have a crowdfunding campaign set up to help raise money to offset the costs of costumes and toys for the kids, to him it is about more than money. It is about sharing the experience of bringing joy to children. It is about encouraging and imparting a bigger impact in the lives of the children he meets. It’s about showing the world how easy it is to do something simple, and fun, to bring smiles to the faces of those people who need them the most.
We would love for you to connect with Matthew on his crowdfunding page and support him as you feel called. But if you are able, and have plans of passing through Peoria, Illinois (or the cities of Chicago, St. Louis or Indianapolis to which he would like to expand) please reach out to him and tell him that you’d love to join him on a trip to the hospital dressed up as your favorite superhero. That would mean the world to Matthew. Because even superheroes need help sometimes.