“Twenty. Just turned twenty.”
I looked over at Dee, who fit my mind’s idea of a 20-year-old perfectly in his Marvel graphic tee and rolled up jeans with Converse, and shook my head. “Twenty, wow.” I said. “That’s crazy, you’re so young. When did you find out you had cancer?”
He closed his eyes and leaned back as he thought. I almost expected him to start singing an old hymn, the way he seemed to focus so intently on the backs of his eyelids. I wondered if he was warm, since it was over 90 degrees outside, and he was wearing a toboggan.
“This time?” he asked.
This time. So this wasn’t the first time. “Yes, this time,” I answered, but I made a mental note to circle back.
Dee graciously recounted to me the struggles he faced as a young adult leading up to the discovery of his cancer this time. Two months of severe headaches, doctor’s visits, scans, appointments with specialists, double vision, and finally an ER visit and ambulance ride to Birmingham, where a doctor told him, “it’s cancer.” The next morning, he underwent a twelve hour craniotomy to remove what they could of the tumor and remove part of his skull to ease the pressure that the tumor was causing.
“It was a devastating feeling,” Dee told me.
Understatement of the year right there, I thought to myself. But what he said next gave me the greatest insight on who Dee is as a person.
“As the process went on,” he continued, “for months and months, I started to realize I don’t got cancer. That’s my saying. I don’t got cancer.”
I was stunned. On the edge of my seat, I waited for Dee to keep talking, to explain what he meant.
“When I heard him say it, that it was cancer, it hurt because I already knew that pain, that sorrow, everything I’d already been through. And it was hard, but I don’t let it bother me no more. I just live day by day like I don’t got it. And that’s what I say, I don’t got it.”
The hair on my arms stood straight up. For the entire two hours that I was with Dee and his family, he never once complained. He never talked about what he may be missing out on because of his diagnosis or the unfairness of being dealt this “bad hand.” Instead, he shared that he likes to write music, he loves video games, and he does his best to treat cancer like it’s just a tiny part of his life, something he has to deal with, rather than letting it define him. Dee treats cancer the way most of us treat laundry.
Dee’s first fight with cancer started when he was just eighteen months old. Grade III anaplastic oligodendroglioma that time. His second fight with cancer was the same type, and it came back when he was five. He had whole brain radiation at that point, and the cancer he has now, osteosarcoma in his brain and right lung, is believed to be a direct result of that treatment he got fifteen years ago. It’s growing along his vagus nerve, and no more of it can be removed at this time.
The story gets even crazier though. Osteosarcoma isn’t the only type of cancer Dee is dealing with right now. He also has renal cell carcinoma in both kidneys. Apparently this type of cancer is referred to as a “silent killer” because it often grows very slowly and doesn’t cause any symptoms until it has completely taken over the kidneys. Theoretically, it could have been wreaking havoc in Dee’s body for years. So last year, one month apart from each other, Dee had brain surgery and then kidney surgery for two separate types of cancer that were attacking his body at the same time.
Insane. Stupid. Unfair. Dee needs a new kidney, but he’s not even eligible to be put on the transplant list because he has a second type of cancer in his body— osteosarcoma in his brain and lung. His brain is reaching a point where it cannot be operated on much more, though they are looking for surgeons who will try, and the disease in his brain and the disease in his lung cannot be treated at the same time because the drugs interfere with each other. Wild. Ridiculous. Wrong.
Yet Dee sat with me on the couch, smiling and talking about his faith. He refused to let cancer control him. He was not angry, bitter, or jaded. He called me “ma’am” (which was endearing and hilarious… I’m barely even older than him!), he laughed carelessly, and when I asked whom he wanted to be in his portraits with him, he looked up, smiled, and said, “my mama.”
It was my greatest pleasure to photograph Dee and spend time with him and his sweet mama. His story is one of perseverance, strength, courage, and grace. I will do anything to end childhood cancer because Dee is worth it.
Until there’s a cure,
Open Hands Overflowing Hearts is a 501(c)3 committed to funding research for childhood cancer— the most underfunded cancer research. Supporting cutting-edge research both locally and nationally, and partnering with kids like Dee along the way, we will not stop until a cure has been found.
Classic Travel Connection has graciously offered to match gifts in Dee’s honor up to $1000 this month! Join us in saving lives by donating here:
If you’re curious as to why CTC chose to partner with us in Dee’s honor, check out this interview with my mom, Christen, as she talks about the impact Dee’s story had on her.
Photography and story provided by Kayla Funk.