What it Was Like to Lose My Niece to Cancer


The call that raised the hair on my arms, which is the one I least expected, came at 7:30 a.m. during a sales meeting.

The call that raised the hair on my arms, which is the one I least expected, came at 7:30 a.m. during a sales meeting.

It was during the spring in 2007. At the time, I sold real estate for the Hilton Corporation. I remember the morning vividly. That Tuesday, the sunrise shot pinks and purples across the sky as I drove the 15 miles to work.

I wasn’t in my chair for more than a few moments when my phone rang. Caller ID showed it was Karen, which the sister next to me in age. Karen is the organizer, the accountant, the person who delivers all the news, good or bad, to our large family. I wondered why she was calling me. “This can’t be good,” I can remember thinking. I stepped out of the conference room to take the call.

Karen’s voice was thick and deep. “Pamela, start praying for Claire right now. She’s in the ER and not doing well.”

Before my sister called me, I knew something was happening with my eight-year-old niece, Claire, because my brother, Dan, had called questioning me about my eye disease.

I was born with Brown syndrome, which is a rare condition that affects the muscles in my head. I only see with one eye at a time. Dan mentioned during that call that one of Claire’s eyes would not focus. However, I was born with my disease, and Claire’s was recent. Dan and his wife, Colleen, had taken Claire to an ophthalmologist, but the doctor had no explanation for her condition.

Then shortly after that, Claire started falling. She was such a clown though, everyone thought her behavior was her being a silly eight-year-old, and that her stumbles and spills meant she was kidding around. Dan and Colleen called her an “oops” child. They had no intention of having a fourth child but when Claire entered the world, with her brilliant blue eyes and sunny disposition, she had everyone eating out of the palm of her hand.

That morning, as I stood in the cold hallway at work in Orlando, listening to Karen who lived in Boynton Beach, Claire was having seizures in a hospital somewhere in Dallas.

“Pamela, she may not make it out. They are removing fluid from her brain now,” Karen said. Her words sounding far away and echoey.

A few days later, Claire was diagnosed with diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a highly aggressive brain tumor, also known as DIPG. If there is such a thing as worst of the worst cancer, this is it. DIPG grows at the base of the brain stem, which controls many of the body’s vital functions such as breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate. This type of cancer is inoperable because of its location in the brain. Treatment is not for a cure but to give the patient more time. Claire was given six months to live.

Claire was taken to every doctor and clinical trial possible.

But ultimately, her little body could not rid itself of the tumor that raged in her. She went to heaven on December 6, 2009. No parent should ever have to endure losing a child to cancer, or any way. I couldn’t imagine if it were my son, James. I struggled with how to console Dan and Colleen, so I did what my mom taught me, and I prayed.

Her favorite term, “we’ll find a way to make it better” was not for teenage breakups anymore. Life was happening. This time it was for those left devastatingly heartbroken.

Thank you for reading. My memoir, “Midlife Cancer Crisis,” will be published on October 15, 2020. Visit my website www.cancerfreeliving.life for more information.

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