Karisa’s Courage

Karisa showing her brother’s stomach drawings

I chose to start my story in August 2004, although unknown to my family and I, my cancer experience had in truth started months earlier. Being on summer break as a 14-year-old, I was expected to be out having fun with friends, but I found myself confined to the couch, sleeping away the days of summer. For most of that year I had not been the picture of health. A countless stream of chest infections sucking my energy. It wasn’t until I got an innocent chest X-ray that the truth about my health started to reveal itself.  

I was immediately admitted to the Alberta Children’s Hospital and isolated in an infectious disease ward. Countless tests performed and endless questions asked. After a lymph node biopsy was taken from my neck and my lung, the doctors got the answer that no one wanted. I didn’t have “cat scratch disease.” I had cancer.  

Even before this point, I remember feeling so isolated. I was locked away from my friends and my carefree life. Even the nurses seemed to keep their distance. All I saw was their eyes from behind their goggles and masks, looking down at me with pity. Because I was a minor, it seemed I didn’t have the right to know what was going on with my own health. No one would tell me what was wrong and why I couldn’t go home yet. I was continuously told to wait until the doctors spoke with my parents. I could see the nurses outside my room, whispering. I always felt it was about me.  

It wasn’t until the end of August that I received my diagnosis. I had stage 4B Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Masses had been growing in both my lungs, my neck, around my spleen and along my spine. At 14 years, I didn’t truly realize what this diagnosis meant, but I did know that cancer meant that I could die.  

Karisa all smiles

I didn’t really have time to process my diagnosis before my treatment started. I was required to endure five cycles of chemotherapy followed by a month of radiation treatments. During my first cycle of chemotherapy, I had an anaphylactic reaction to one of the drugs, which left me in the intensive care unit. Despite that, the rest of my chemotherapy went as expected. 

Five or so months of chemotherapy left me void of all energy. I didn’t feel like myself, I was achy all over from sleeping all day, but couldn’t find the energy to do anything other than sleep. My legs had severe pain and would refuse to work at times causing me to fall. I had the occasional fever where I would beg my parents to not tell the doctor, so I could stay at home instead of being admitted back to the hospital. 

My family and friends did what they could to cheer me up. I had surprise visits from friends and teachers. They even snuck my hamster in for a visit. My brother was a big support for me, far bigger than I think he realizes. He was always there to try and make me smile. Whether it was drawing my doctor’s face on my stomach or engaging in the latest fashion trends of “bear toupee.” 

Stunning scenery on a SunSeeker hike

My first experience with Kids Cancer Care was about half way through my cancer treatments when my parents had enrolled both my brother and I in a weekend teen camp. Naturally, I was not looking forward to it. I hadn’t been social since my diagnosis and the thought of being stuck at a camp with strangers in the middle of November scared me. But entering this camp was like entering a different world. Everyone was excited to meet me and hear my story. Comparing treatment regiments and scars seemed to be normal. They were okay if I didn’t have hair or if I had a central line coming out of my chest. I hadn’t really opened up to anyone about what I was going through, but this camp, felt like a safe space to do so. Sitting in the dorm rooms at night hearing others speak so openly about their experiences was inspiring. 

Kids Cancer Care was so welcoming and encouraged me to share my story with more people than just my bunk mates. I was asked to be a spokeskid. In this role, I created a speech to recite for events such as fundraising events and head shave events. My most exciting event was the one where I got the privilege to shave my brother’s head at his school head shave. Most importantly, I attended many more teen camps and as many summer camps as I could.  

A year after my treatment had ended, I was allowed to attend the coveted SunSeeker camp. This camp was for adventure seekers. During my time in these camps, we hiked the Juan de Fuca Trail, travelled by sea kayaks to our own private beach, traversed the glaciers between Bow and Peyto hut and completed numerous kayaking trips and white-water rafting adventures. I had never had an adventure like the ones during this camp. I remember waking up one morning and stepping out of my tent to the vision of whales breaching right past our campsite. And it all seemed to hit me then, how lucky I was. I felt so free and thankful. I was thankful for that moment and for the wonderful people surrounding me. I was also grateful that my life had taken the course it had. 

Karisa taking in the views at SunSeeker

When I reflect on my cancer experience, I feel fortunate and humbled. This cancer experience presented me with so many opportunities that could have otherwise been missed. Kids Cancer Care played a huge role in this and provided me with most of those opportunities. As a 14-year-old going through something so monumental, it changed how I view the world. It allowed me to re-evaluate my life and to find what (and who) is most meaningful to me.

At my five-year remission date, I felt overwhelmed. I considered myself lucky to remain cancer free to this point. But the risk of it coming back or of getting another type of cancer related to my treatment loomed in the back of my mind. I continued to endure scans and tests every year and those tests only fed into this fear.  

The years continue to pass and each year I feel blessed. I am currently 17 years in remission. I still experience these fears of cancer returning, but they growing fainter as the years pass.  

Karisa’s participation in the Shave Your Lid For a Kid event

I consider myself extremely lucky. My cancer has left me with no visible side effects or disabilities. I am strong and healthy. My body has the strength and energy to take me to many places and to experience many of the wonders this world has to offer. I have hiked and biked more kilometres than I can count. I have had the chance to experience breathtaking views here in Alberta and throughout the world.  

I also had the opportunity to complete my nursing degree with the help of a Kids Cancer Care Derek Wandzura Memorial Scholarship. I currently work as a registered nurse in an inpatient hematology and oncology ward. In fact, I administer the same chemotherapy agents that I received 17 years ago. I don’t always share my cancer experience with my patients, but I feel deeply connected to them. 

My experience with cancer has truly shaped who I am today. At the beginning of my diagnosis, I honestly believed that I had been cursed and that cancer would be my demise. But with the love and support of those close to me, I was able to engage in the opportunities this “curse” had presented me. During my cancer journey, I have met some of the most inspiring people, rediscovered my passion for the outdoors through Kids Cancer Care camps and discovered a career I love. These are just to name a few. In truth, I feel like my journey is never ending. Each day is a new opportunity.