Throwing Marshmallows to Bears

My family is forced to endure many quirks. It’s part of the price of admission to my ride and I seem to latch on to more as the years go by.

One constant is my love of roadside attractions. I absolutely adore them! The cheesier the better. Who doesn’t get the urge to stop when they see the sign for the home of Superman, Metropolis, Illinois or the world’s largest ball of string?

Years ago, I was headed to Gatlinburg with my oldest two girls when I saw a sign in Cherokee, North Carolina that said you could feed bears. Think we stopped?

Of course we stopped. We bought our little bags of bear food and soon found ourselves standing on a walkway looking down into pits that housed the massive creatures. They were looking up and waving at us for their food.

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Their food? Marshmallows.

Think of the ridiculous nature of the scene. My curly, blonde little girls, weighing somewhere between 30 and 50 pounds each at the time, awkwardly throwing little puffy balls of sugar at docile-looking 400 to 500 pound bears. At some point, I noticed my girls were actually having a picnic with them – throw one, eat one, throw one, etc. and the bears were getting restless. They never marveled at the size of the bear or the unnatural setting – they were just enjoying their marshmallows with their furry companions as if seated on a checkered blanket together.

Sometimes you witness a scene such as that and it makes you wonder at its absurdity.

But we do the same thing. Let me construct another scene for you.

In February of 2014, our youngest daughter, Kylie was in the 6th grade. We had just gotten back from a Disneyworld vacation when her knee started to hurt. Doctors initially thought it was from all of the walking we did. In March they moved on to a growth plate issue, and then in April we heard the words, “Your child has cancer.”

What I learned on that day was that if I had gotten the same cancer as Kylie had when I was her age, I would have had the same treatment. You heard that right. The treatments for many childhood cancers have changed little in the last forty years.

With all of the scientific, medical, and technological advancements we’ve made in four decades, when it comes to childhood cancer, we are still only throwing marshmallows at bears.

Marshmallows won’t stop the problem bear – they won’t even slow it down if it is really angry. You can hurl all the sweets at it you want but that bear will keep on coming. Like a low budget horror film, the more you stop to throw, the closer the bear gets with its fangs, claws, and mighty roar.

And the childhood cancer bear is getting hungrier. Incidences are up 24% over the last forty years and it is the leading cause of death by disease for children.

So what are we doing as a society?

Sadly, very little.

 Consider this:

  • All childhood cancers combined receive less than 4% of federal cancer research funding – and overall funding dollars took a massive hit in the 2018 budget.
  • Prostate cancer receives 5%.
  • Since 1980, only 4 drugs have been approved specifically for children.
  • 1 in 5 children do not survive.

I picked on prostate cancer and there is a good reason.

  • The average age at diagnosis for childhood cancer is 6 years-old.
  • The average age at diagnosis for prostate cancer is 66 years-old.

The overall cure rate for all childhood cancers combined is 83% and prostate cancer is 95%. Yet our government is spending more research dollars there than on all childhood cancers.

You tell me one 66-year-old grandfather with prostate cancer who would say this is fair! Kylie’s granddaddy, a prostate cancer survivor wouldn’t. In fact, he prayed with the rest of us for God to take him instead.

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The marshmallows we threw at Kylie’s bear were inadequate, unsafe, and in the end, ineffective. We must find new ways to beat cancer and private funding of cutting-edge research is crucial. If we stand outside the pit and trust the government to do it, that bear will keep coming for our children.

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Remember those bears that we visited when my girls were young? Soon after we left, two tribal elders fought on the bears’ behalf and the park was closed down. All of the bears were moved to a new life with room to roam. No more marshmallows hurled into enclosures. Real food.

This is what we need for children with cancer. We need to stop throwing marshmallows and work together to find the solution. Our children are depending on us.

The Rock of Permanence

I had someone tell me that the second year of loss is harder than the first. Naturally, I was dubious. After all, our first year without Kylie was devastating from every conceivable angle. What could possibly be more difficult than living in the recent aftermath of the loss of a child? Wouldn’t you assume that things would get a little better with the passage of time? I certainly did.

But there are stark differences between year one and year two.

In year one, you realize what a powerful thing delusion can be. The grieving mind plays tricks and dreams up scenarios where life is impossibly restored and you believe it simply because you want to – it is easier to believe than to live in reality. Memories pull you back to simpler times before the loss as a coping mechanism. Additionally, the tremendous shock of the loss serves as a numbing agent to the depth of pain and longing involved in the tragedy. I don’t know how long experts would say that shock lasts after such an event, but it slowly peters away.

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