As a medical student, I often field the question, “What kind of doctor do you want to be?”
I respond, “A pediatric oncologist,” and brace myself for the reaction I always get:
“That sounds so sad!”
I understand why people often respond this way. They haven’t had the experiences that I’ve had—experiences that made me see children who are battling cancer differently.
Camp Happy Days
In rural South Carolina, there’s a beautiful campground made up of tall shade-giving trees surrounding a placid, serene lake. Every year, at the end of June, the campground transforms into Camp Happy Days, a camp for children diagnosed with cancer, in remission from it, and for their siblings.
In 2014, I was a counselor at the camp and worked with boys between the ages of 4 and 6. Before my three campers arrived, I received cards with their pictures, names, birthdays and medications. One of my campers was receiving treatment, the other had a sibling diagnosed with cancer, and the third was in remission from it. These boys really needed a break, and I would make sure they got that and had a memorable fun-filled week.
We spent the next seven days painting derby cars, dyeing T-shirts, swimming in the lake and eating dessert for breakfast. In anticipation for the campwide prom event at the end of the week, the campers secretly passed notes to their camp crushes and not-so-secretly professed their love for one another during camp activities. I remember Cooper, a 6-year-old camper, holding the door open for 4-year-old Emma and asking her to go to prom with him. Emma blushed, giggled and wholeheartedly accepted. This moment is one of my sweetest memories of camp.
Children first, patients second
At camp, I also met some of the bravest people I’ve ever known. One of my campers told me about his chemotherapy and all the tubes he had attached to his body when he was just 3 years old. A teenage camper told me that he wanted to make the most of the camp prom because he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to attend his own high school prom. Another camper challenged herself to rock climb even though osteosarcoma had left her leg paralyzed.
Camp Happy Days’ campers saw cancer very closely, but overall, they refused to let the disease dictate their lives. Most kids in the pediatric oncology wing learn early that life is full of hardships, and they gain the courage to face and deal with challenges. The lesson I learned from the campers is that most people can choose whether they want to define their lives by the hardships they encounter or by their blessings and the things that bring them joy. I also learned to see the campers as children first and patients second. They were much more than their diagnoses.
After camp, I shadowed a pediatric oncologist in India, which further reinforced my notion that this specialty is my calling. But when I respond to people who think pediatric oncology is sad, it’s usually my experience at Camp Happy Days that I talk about. I say that I’d be honored to dedicate my career to serving kids like these.