By Andrea Wilson Woods
When my 15-year-old sister Adrienne was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, I was beyond devastated. I was Adrienne’s legal guardian, and I had raised her from the age of eight. I could not imagine my life without her. Yet, her cancer journey only lasted 147 days. The following story is an excerpt from my medical memoir Better Off Bald: A Life in 147 Days.
The Support Group
At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, the support group called Teen Impact met on Mondays at 6 p.m. Their mission was “to improve the quality of life for adolescents and young adults with cancer by providing peer-based group interventions in a safe and therapeutic environment.” The group had regular meetings and retreats. My sister Adrienne was reluctant to attend. She rarely fit into one specific social group and thought this situation wouldn’t be any different. I encouraged her to go one time, and she agreed to shut me up.
Adrienne complained about having a headache as we pulled into the parking garage at the hospital. She knew I could not give her anymore Tylenol for a few hours, but she wanted to avoid going to the meeting.
“We’ll walk in. If you hate it, we’ll walk out,” I told her. “You can show off your new hairdo.”
We found Teen Impact in a large room, where chairs were positioned in a circle. Many teenagers had already arrived. We sat in the two chairs closest to the door. A woman opened the meeting by encouraging people to go around and introduce themselves.
“We have some new people here today,” she said.
Adrienne glared at me.
Most of the kids had leukemia, and some of them were in remission. An upbeat, 16-year-old Hispanic girl had a tumor in her thigh, and her leg might need to be amputated. She sat in a wheelchair to Adrienne’s right.
When it is her turn, Adrienne whispered, “Hello. My name is Adrienne.”
Some kids responded with an enthusiastic “Hi Adrienne.”
The group reminded me of the few Al-Anon meetings I had attended many years ago, positive people coping with impossible situations. Do I leave my alcoholic boyfriend? Do I continue treatment even though the tumors keep multiplying?
I smiled and looked at Adrienne, who ran out of the room in tears. I apologized for both of us and left too.
Farther down the hall, I found her sitting on the floor, knees tucked into her chest, shaking, and crying.
“Don’t make me go back. I can’t do this,” she said.
I had pushed her too hard. She did not need or want a support group; I did. I had forced my desire onto her; most parents do this at one time or another, but unlike our argument over what constituted a perfect Christmas tree, this time my will had incited sadness, not anger.
Between sobs, Adrienne said, “Don’t you get it? I can’t be around other sick kids. It’s too depressing.”
“I’m sorry, kiddo. You never have to go back. Let’s go home.”
As I helped Adrienne to her feet, a tall African American woman approached us.
“Here,” she said as she thrusted a book in my hand. “I just know I am supposed to give this to you. I can’t explain why.”
I thanked her and looked down at the small book: Cancer Bibliography: The best books on cancer—a resource for librarians, oncology nurses, patients, and their families. Four by seven inches with 58 pages, it would be more accurate to call it a booklet. I flipped through it as Adrienne and I got on the elevator. The booklet had been printed five months ago. To assuage my guilt, I told myself we were supposed to be at the hospital, not for Adrienne to attend the Teen Impact meeting, but for me to receive this booklet.