Ryan Hamner is a four-time survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, a musician, and an award-winning author. In 2011, he wrote and recorded, "Where Hope Lives" for the American Cancer Society and the song for survivors, "Survivors Survive" used in 2015 for #WorldCancerDay. Recently, he published his book, This is Remission: A Four-Time Cancer Survivor's Memories of Treatment, Struggle, and Life, available on Amazon. His website is www.ryanhamner.com
30 years after cancer treatment, one survivor returns to the Ronald McDonald House that made a major difference in their cancer journey.
"I need a smile," the photographer Carolyn said. I was freezing.
"I can't feel my face when I'm with you," I said jokingly, referencing the popular song by The Weeknd.
It was in the forties and overcast. That's not too bad for many, but with the windchill and a little mist, it felt pretty icy to me. Oh yeah, and I've been living in Florida since 2012, so my body isn't exactly used to anything remotely cold.
There I was, after just over 30 years, standing in the driveway of the Houston Mill Ronald McDonald House in Atlanta, Georgia. It was surreal. I was back, but this time under much better circumstances.
That long winding driveway was at one time my cue that "we were there." Most of the time, on the ride to the House, I would just lay all of the way back in the car seat. In and out of sleep, I'd stare up towards the ceiling of the car with a limited view of what I could see outside of the car window. But, when we got to the winding driveway with all of the tall trees I knew we were there. This time though, many of those trees were gone.
Aleea, who worked with the Ronald McDonald House, was also there helping out with the pictures being taken of me for Ronald McDonald House's 40th anniversary. They were trying to snap a few shots of my Bamba Box and me.
"Do you have any jokes?" I would ask her. And she'd reply with a smile, which usually helped me smile for the camera.
In the 80s, after leaving a chemo session at the Emory Pediatric Clinic, I can remember being pushed out to the car in a wheelchair by my mom, although other family members definitely helped out, I was then slowly eased into the passenger's seat little by little. Seriously, one wrong move and things could get worse before we were ready.
When I think back on it now, I always remember being pushed out of that clinic into a sunny day. For whatever reason, that's my memory of leaving. But, many other memories of those days don't really align with a "sunny day." Things were tough.
I spent many nights at the Houston Mill Ronald McDonald House between the ages of 6 and 12 if I remember correctly. But remembering specifics isn't easy at times.
As Aleea and I walked around to the back of the house - a house now missing some of its paint and in need of some work - it all felt like something out of a movie. To many, it would mean nothing, just an old house. But now, how going back made me feel was hard to describe. There is not a single word that can capture what hit me as I approached that door on the back of the house that we used to go through after chemo treatments.
This was the door that we went through so many times to get into the house and back to my room. It wasn't just a door on a house, though. Going through that door was a marker for me back then — a signal.
In the past, going through that door meant that I was just minutes away from becoming violently ill. It was like clockwork back then. Finish chemo, ride to the Ronald McDonald House and just get through it. Oh, and the ice chips, those were always in the mix too.
As I peered into the windows of that back door of the Houston Mill Ronald McDonald House, I could see the playroom that I remembered going by so many times. It had changed so much. It was now just an empty room where it appeared that some remodeling had begun but abruptly stopped.
Going back to the house had more of an impact on me than I initially thought it would. It was bittersweet. This was the place that provided me and my family a home in one of the hardest times of my life, and my family's too. We met others there going through similar trials. My hope is that the "sweet" memories of the hard times for all of us outweigh the "bitter" ones and it's more like a "sunny day" now.