By Simon Staples-Vangel, Wish Kid
I’m writing this post just a few days shy of my twenty-third birthday. It was over eighteen years ago that I was diagnosed with stage IV neuroblastoma, and it’s been almost seventeen years since my Make-A-Wish experience. While that timespan makes it feel like a lifetime ago, I still have vivid memories of my treatment and, of course, my wish. It’s difficult for those who aren’t in the pediatric cancer community to grasp what a child goes through during such an aggressive cancer treatment. No doubt, they know that it is a painful and miserable experience, but they don’t understand the situation from the perspective of a young child.
At the age of four, I had no idea what was going on during most of my treatment. Sometimes, when asked about going through my treatment, I get the sense that people don’t grasp how little four-year-old Simon understood. During my treatment, I had no clue about my chances of survival, what the various types of chemotherapies and medicines were doing, or the odds at stake when I went in for scans and tests. In a sense, this is a blessing, since no one wants to tell a four-year-old that he or she is going through experimental treatment that might not work. On the other hand, without a firm grasp on the situation, I was extremely sick, constantly in a tremendous amount of pain, being poked with more needles than one can imagine, and being forced to lay still for countless tests and scans. In the beginning at least, I had no idea why, and to me the whole situation was unfair, miserable, and downright boring.
My wish changed everything. With my parents juggling time between my inpatient stays (we basically lived there), my dad’s job, and time with my older sister, I spent a considerable amount of time with my grandmother, who is from North Carolina. It was through her that I became obsessed with NASCAR and wanted to go to a race for my wish. Not only did I get to go to a race (and a race at the legendary Charlotte Motor Speedway no less!), but I got to meet all the drivers, and even start the race by standing on the track and saying, “Gentlemen, start your engines,” on national television and in front of hundreds of thousands of people. To put it simply, it was one heck of a weekend for a kid who’d just started kindergarten and was too weak to be allowed to participate at recess.
I often frame this for people by explaining that, while my wish did not literally save my life (I owe that to the neuroblastoma team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), it changed the way that my entire family and I felt about life. I was no longer just a sickly kid. For that weekend, I felt like a true celebrity. Having my wish granted transformed my feelings about my cancer treatment into one positive and optimistic memory. It is for that reason that I have continued to be involved with Make-A-Wish ever since that weekend in Charlotte. Every kid going through such a tough treatment should get that same feeling of empowerment that I was so fortunate to receive, instead of having to sit through it feeling like a victim.
It is for that reason that, upon relocating to Central New York, I immediately sought out the local Make-A-Wish chapter to find out how I could get involved. I promise that you’ll find me at Make-A-Wish events for a long, long time, no matter where I go. Or, alternatively, on any given Sunday, you’ll find me on my couch, still watching NASCAR.