Then came the four words that turned our world upside down: “Your son has cancer.”
Our older son, Liam, was diagnosed with bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare type of eye cancer. He had malignant tumors in both of his eyes, and would need to begin chemotherapy immediately to prevent the cancer from spreading to his brain. This unexpected news hit us like a tons of bricks.
The next six months were a roller coaster of ups and downs. Liam went though six cycles of chemotherapy, multiple laser eye treatments and exams under anesthesia (EUAs), dozens of needle pokes and blood draws, the removal (enucleation) of his left eye, several trips to the emergency room, and the fitting of his prosthetic eye. We were often separated from our infant son, Colin, as we made frequent trips to Children’s Hospital Colorado for Liam’s appointments, surgeries and treatments. Colin was in good hands with our wonderfully supportive family and friends, but it was certainly not how we expected to spend the first year of his life.
Through it all, Liam astounded us and those around him with his bravery and resilience. His happy, loving spirit was such an important reminder to my husband and me to not let cancer define us, though we struggled with anger, sadness, guilt and fear throughout Liam’s treatment and recovery.
In the summer after Liam’s diagnosis, we learned that he would be granted a wish from Make-A-Wish Colorado. We were thrilled and incredibly grateful. During Liam’s interview to determine his “one true wish,” we were committed to letting him steer the way so it was truly his wish and not one that we planted in his head. It’s a bit difficult for a 2-and-half-year-old to really understand the idea of a wish, but the recurring theme that emerged was camping and Jeeps. Liam’s wish coordinator, Jennifer, took that idea and ran with it.
On Sept. 24 (almost a year to the date of Liam’s diagnosis), our family left for Liam’s camping adventure wish trip. We headed to The Broadmoor, a beautiful resort in Colorado Springs, for a four-day trip that was full of special surprises for Liam. We stayed in a beautiful cottage on the Broadmoor property and were able to really focus on being present and being together as a family of four, which was a much-needed change from the chaos of the last year. Everything was taken care of for us, and I can honestly say that it was the first time my husband and I felt relaxed in over a year.
I distinctly remember the most emotional moment for me of Liam’s wish trip. It was the afternoon of our arrival. Liam was having a ball riding Dixie the horse around the Broadmoor Stables. I was surprised when tears started streaming down my face. Then it hit me. For so long, I hoped and prayed for Liam to be able to be a normal 2-year-old boy, free from the burden of cancer. And here he was, having the time of his life riding this horse, with cancer and all he had been through as the farthest things from his mind.
The days that followed were equally magical. We went on a hiking adventure and a private jeep tour witnessing beautiful fall colors in the Rocky Mountains. Liam had his first fishing lesson on a well-stocked pond on the Broadmoor property, where he enjoyed feeding the fish more than catching them. We made s’mores, ate delicious food and treats, and were treated like royalty at every turn by the incredible staff at the Broadmoor. They went above and beyond to make sure it was a special and memorable trip for our family, and we will never forget their kindness and generosity.
And the happy news doesn’t end there.
Two weeks after Liam’s wish trip, we returned to Children’s Hospital Colorado where, for the first time, we heard the “r” word – remission! It was another surreal and magical moment.
Fast forward almost one year, and Liam is 3 years old and doing incredibly well. His doctors continue to monitor him closely, and he has shown no signs of tumor growth or new tumor activity in almost 18 months. We are grateful beyond words to be at this point in Liam’s cancer journey.
I often wonder how much of his wish trip adventure Liam will remember as he gets older. Thankfully, it still holds a special place in his memory. Every horse we see is “his” horse, Dixie, and he still talks about fishing with Randy and hiking with Daniel. We’re committed to keeping those magical memories alive for him through stories, pictures, and videos. We’re also committed to helping him understand that his experience was only possible because of the generosity of thousands of Make-A-Wish donors, volunteers and staff members that he may never meet, and that we must do our part to pay it forward as much as we are able.
It’s not lost on me that both Liam’s diagnosis and his Make-A-Wish trip happened in the month of September, which also happens to be Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I would have never imagined that childhood cancer would be part of our family’s story, and yet, it is and always will be.
Unfortunately, we are far from alone. Every two minutes, a child is diagnosed with cancer. That’s 300,000 kids around the world each year fighting for a childhood and a future free of cancer. Together, we can make a difference by supporting causes that are working on a cure and improved treatments, giving voice to the voiceless, and providing hope and joy to kids and families.
Wishes can be part of helping kids rediscover their voice, their hope and their joy. And any one of us can be part of granting wishes – just like the volunteers and donors who granted a wish for Liam and our entire family.
Kate Hagdorn lives with her husband, Andrew, and two sons, Liam and Colin, in Fort Collins, Colo.