Living with cancer: A daughter’s perspective
Caroline Hendrickson learned countless life lessons after her father’s diagnosis
At the start of her eighth grade year at St. Michael's School in August 2020, Caroline Hendrickson's life was "pretty perfect."
Her main focus was working toward high grades in the classroom and success on her sports teams.
That idyllic period ended in December when her father Brad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. For Caroline, the devastating news forced her to grow up quickly.
"With one little sentence telling me he had cancer, my whole world changed," she said. "I've learned so many things since then."
Now a freshman at Cony High School, Caroline shared her perspective recently as part of this year's Day of Hope, an education and fundraising event dedicated to supporting, honoring, remembering and celebrating those impacted by cancer.
"The hardest thing to learn was that life still had to go on and I had to finish the school year," she recalled recently. "It was a bumpy road to travel."
Navigating the bumps
Caroline’s first adjustment was trying to process powerful and ever-changing emotions. Aside from her school principal, cancer survivor Kevin Cullen, she didn't know anyone who had cancer.
Her feelings aligned with the stages of grief one experiences following a significant life hardship or loss of a loved one – first denial and anger, then bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.
She was afraid her dad was going to die and also was angry that older sister Lauren had more time with him than she had.
"Teenagers want to conceal their feelings and it was really hard to share mine," she said. "I questioned God about why my father had to have cancer and I was mad about a lot of things. The first thing I thought of was that my father wouldn't get to walk me down the aisle when I got married or do all the things dads do."
Reaching out for help
Ultimately, for Caroline, her St. Michael's community became a great support system once she opened up to them.
"I started talking to people – my teachers and two really close friends – and that helped me a lot," she said. "My teachers were my biggest supporters and my principal also was a really good person to talk to. They'd check in daily to see if I was okay."
The check-ins were especially important in the spring, as her parents left for a month for Brad’s stomach removal surgery and follow-up care at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Caroline was left in the care of her extended family but had to learn to manage her life and do many little things her always mother did for her.
"It was a lot to deal with. I never really saw how much she did for me until she wasn't there. I didn’t want to put that responsibility on my grandparents or my cousin, so I did it myself," she said. "I had to make sure I had rides to where I needed to be, to make sure I had homework time and also that I had everything ready for the next day."
Adding to the stress was not fully understanding what was happening in Houston. And then there was disappointment in knowing her parents would miss her eighth grade graduation. These feelings were lessened by knowing she had a great community to support her. A newfound reliance on faith also was a source of strength.
"My religion teacher encouraged me to pray and that really helped," she said. "My teachers and friends also encouraged me to stay positive instead of thinking about the what-ifs."
Celebrating life after treatment
Months after the Hendricksons' return from Texas and to a more normal life at home, Brad's diagnostic scans and bloodwork deemed him "cancer-free."
While he'll continue to have routine follow-up scans and appointments to check for signs of cancer, Caroline and her family are celebrating this milestone.
They're also celebrating the remarkable young woman who still was able to earn high honors and transition to high school as a wiser, confident and more independent person.
"I've really learned that family is the most important thing," Caroline said.
"Early on, when he got the bad news about his cancer diagnosis, my dad said he only had one life and wasn’t going to give up. He was going to fight for it and I learned that I had to fight too."