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It's Just the Butterflies: Time Travel Back to My Cancer Days


How just another day at work triggered thoughts of having cancer as a child.

"I know those butterflies," I thought to myself, "I've seen them so many times, as a kid," and felt them.

If I had shared this with my coworker as we walked through the bright colored halls of the children's hospital where we work, he probably would've had no clue as to what I was talking about, or why.

As we walked through the hospital, we passed labs, nurses, pediatric oncologists, waiting rooms, decorated for children. There were even the smells — it was all there. It was like unexpected time travel. Bam! I was transported back.

But, it was those butterflies, the bright multicolored butterflies painted on the panels of the hospital ceilings above me. These were what triggered the most memories. I wasn't looking for it to happen, it just happened. Honestly, they seemed to be the same butterflies like the ones I used to look up and see over 30 years ago.

Just like all of the other reminders of being a kid with cancer, G.I. Joe men, the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sunday afternoons, McDonald's (weird right?), cold tile floors, alcohol and even refrigerators, looking up at the butterfly paintings reminded me of so many experiences that I had as a kid fighting cancer.

Even though I distinctly remember the butterflies were there, I don't remember each time I saw them. That’s probably because there were so many instances that I saw them. I do, however, remember several times waking up and seeing these guys directly above me, just hanging out. I also remember a few times thinking, "Why butterflies? Why not horses or some other animal? Owls? They're pretty cool."

Looking back though, there are several occasions where I remember looking up and seeing one or two of these butterflies while being rolled down the hospital hallways headed to the operating room. The memories all seem to blend into one but are all very much alike. I was cold (although I was wrapped in a warm blanket), very nervous and with the turn of every corner asking myself, "Is this the room? Is it time?"

I remember that straight face I kept. I'm sure I came off as emotionless at the time, but I was just focused on getting through it — I was just ready to get it done and go home.

It's really crazy looking back on how I went from being scared and uncertain in one moment, looking up at a ceiling full of brightly colored butterflies, wondering what the outcome of this next procedure would be, to weeks later being back outside, fishing or playing Army just beneath the real, brightly color butterflies. The contrast of the situations is striking. It often makes me wonder, what's way up above the butterflies?

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Dr. Lauren Pinter-Brown