Focus and perspective learned from childhood cancer

Calum portrait
A portrait of Calum a month before symptoms began.

Chris Hedges, a New York Times reporter and author of a bestselling book about the Iraq War once said that war “simplifies and focuses life; it offers purpose.”

I couldn’t agree more, but I’m not thinking of a traditional war. I’m thinking about another type of battle – a battle a 5-year-old I know is having with cancer. Even though my family and I have been watching his battle from the outside, it has provided us with more clarity and a better perspective on life the last few months.

Two months ago, Calum Campbell, the son of our friends and former around-the-corner neighbors, Cade and Jennifer Campbell, was diagnosed with Stage III, T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, which had formed a mass three times the size of Calum’s heart in his chest. The news was certainly a bitter pill to swallow, but the Campbells took the pill without becoming bitter. Instead, they turned to God. It is said that true character is shown in the midst of adversity. The Campbells have proven that their character is strong and unwavering. The way they’ve dealt with the strain is inspiring and uplifting.

They set up a Facebook community page, appropriately named “The Calum Chronicles” to keep everyone up-to-date on their son’s treatment and progress. Through this online journal, one can see the ups and downs the family has experienced, but one theme that is front and center throughout the text is that their hope and resolve never waivers. They are firmly focused on the three things that matter most: family, friends and faith, both faith in a higher power and faith that their son will survive this lengthy ordeal and be stronger because of it.

For instance, on January 21, Cade wrote that his son had “come from the brink of death and helped us all become stronger than we ever imagined we could be.” And through it all, he remarked that his wife, “truly is an angel on earth and has been prepared for this mission at hand.”

Hearing Jennifer and Cade’s story, there was other preparation at hand and other angels who quickly came to the scene as well. Their next-door neighbors, Russell and Karen Lee, put their house up for sale over the summer, but took it off the market only about a week later. Karen said she just felt like it wasn’t time yet and they needed to wait a little longer. These dear neighbors have proved vital during the Campbell’s trying time. Jennifer said it was Russell, a nurse practitioner, who strongly urged Jennifer to go to the doctor immediately when Calum was having trouble breathing after weeks of perpetual illnesses and a loss of appetite. It was that trip to the doctor that led to a life-flight to Primary Children’s Hospital, where Calum was concretely diagnosed and began his treatment.

Other preparation was perhaps not as crucial, but helped smooth Jennifer’s transition from home to living in the hospital in Salt Lake, such as Christmas shopping, present identification which proved a lifesaver for her mother later on, and a planning meeting with Jennifer’s counselors in the Primary Presidency just before the unexpected helicopter ride north. The world would say that this preparation was just a coincidence. However, the Campbells know better.

Jennifer said both sets of grandparents and Karen have been on the front lines since Calum’s diagnosis, acting as parents during Jennifer and Cade’s long absences.

It was during Christmastime that the Campbell family’s faith and perspective best helped remind me and my family what is truly important during that time of year. Cade said it best in one of his posts in “The Calum Chronicles” on Christmas Eve:

“This Christmas Eve is the purest I’ve had. No games or cheese balls shared around large well-lit trees. No hustle and bustle making last minute preparations. No egg nog or cocoa washing down ham and roast beef. No wondering what the bright, tightly-wrapped packages contain. No games played nor laughter heard. Just the low sterile light cast across the small boy in this bed revealing what a true gift is. This life.”

These words, of any Cade and Jennifer have posted, have resonated with me the most – a reminder of what the “true gift” is, the lives of one’s family and one’s own life as well as the life of the Savior. It made me think that when we strip away all of the unnecessaries in our own lives, we find the true focus on what really matters, those three previously mentioned “F”s.

With Calum's legs weak as a result of his chemotherapy, Cade broke out the Kelty to take him on a walk to the park on January 24.
With Calum’s legs weak as a result of his chemotherapy, Cade broke out the Kelty to take him on a walk to the park on January 24.

Another way the Campbell’s story has touched me and my family is the incredible demonstrations of love and support we have seen from the community. Seeing the goodness of others and their willingness to help restores one’s faith in humanity.

In “The Calum Chronicles” on January 7, Cade remarked on this, saying:

“The miracles that have and are happening are the result of fervent prayer, unwavering faith (and) sacrifices of time, energy and money by all of you. I have a little bit more of an understanding of what charity really is. I have a little bit more of an understanding of how much love Christ and our Heavenly Father really have for us. I’ve had faith renewed in mankind I never thought possible.”

The community has mobilized to offer help in so many ways – a benefit yard sale, two days in which the St. George Chili’s donated some of its proceeds to the Campbell family, a Valentine’s Dance benefit, a local dance group selling wristbands that say “Courage for Calum,” the selling of T-shirts emblazoned with the same message, a neighbor starting a gas fund for the Campbell’s regular trips to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake, and another set of neighbors putting together a “Coins for Calum” drive, placing bottles at local businesses for people to donate their change. And the list goes on, and on.

One of the biggest benefit projects for the family is the remodel and addition to the Campbell’s house. A mold-infested, 60-year-old home is not conducive for the recovery of a cancer patient, nor was its four bedrooms conducive for a family of eight children (Jennifer and Cade have five of their own and adopted three others, who before the adoption were their nieces and nephew). Two of those bedrooms were a later addition to the house of shoddy craftsmanship and had to be demolished, but from its dust will rise four more bedrooms, whose construction is headed by Cade’s uncle, Danny Campbell.

Jennifer told me that Danny has been extremely enthusiastic and optimistic about the project, assuring his nephew’s family that most of it can be completed with donated materials and time. So far, that’s held true. The family’s financial investment in the project has been minimal. Cade’s cousin created another facebook page devoted solely to the home reconstruction, letting people in the community know what projects are coming so that anyone available and willing can help. Jennifer mentioned that someone from Cedar City she doesn’t even know has donated quite a bit of material for the addition and that the very day I talked to her last there were boys there helping dig the footings for the foundation that she didn’t even know. She said many people she doesn’t know have stepped in to help.

As one can see, the joy of service is alive and well in Hurricane, Utah. Jennifer said she has been speechless over the tremendous support on her family’s behalf the last two months.

She says that many times when she’s thanked those who have donated their time and resources, they tell her they feel like they’ve hardly done anything – a reflection of their humility and modesty, a quality Jennifer and Cade have demonstrated throughout their trying time.

When I talked to Cade last, I told him unequivocally that he, Jennifer and Calum are heroes. They are to me and my family and I know they are to so many more. He deflected my adulation, saying that his wife and Calum are the ones who deserve it, especially Calum. He said his little son has never complained and never asked many questions about what’s going on and why he’s had to spend so much time in the hospital.

“He just rolls with it,” Cade said of his five-year-old Ironman (both literally and figuratively, as he loves to dress up as his favorite superhero).

Super family
The Super Campbell family, with their little Ironman front and center.

In a January 7 post in the Calum Chronicles, Cade said:

He is still the sweet little boy he always was, but now he has to be old beyond his years in order to fight this fight before him. He has been saved to live in thesemost perilous of times upon us all because he can fight. He wants to fight. He will fight. He IS fighting!”

Jennifer echoed Cade’s sentiment in a January 20 (Calum’s birthday) post:

“I frequently ponder the fact that this dude has cancer, I am blown away by hisstrength, by his sweetness, and by his giant spirit. He is so much more than just a 5year old. He truly is a hero.”

By looking at Jennifer and Cade, one would not think they have gone through what they have the last few months. They are stalwarts, brimming with optimism. But they are the first to admit it hasn’t been easy. In a January 15 post, Cade said they have dealt with extreme emotional highs and lows trying to take care of their seven other children throughout this ordeal.

“It’s been so taxing on our bodies, minds, and spirits,” he said.

Through it all, the Campbells know in their hearts that their son will recover. Both have said on numerous occasions how grateful they are for the constant prayers for their family, that they feel them and that they keep Calum going.

In a December 29 post, Jennifer said:

“I am so grateful for your prayers and support. I am buoyed up by your love. I know that Calum is too. He is so very tough and handling this all so well. So much better than I would ever expect any child to handle it (even better than I handle it!). Together, and with the Lord’s hand, we can navigate our way through this storm.”

The Campbell family has been and continues to be an inspiration to my family – an example to be clearly focused on what’s important – not the material things we all get hung up on, but the relationships with those three “F”s.

Thank you Cade, Jennifer, Calum and seemingly innumerable others for your examples.

My family – and a whole community – will continue to pray for the day that Calum is whole, when he wins his battle that has given his family and those who love them more of a purpose in their own lives.

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