In March of 2008 Cassie was a typical junior in high school, preparing for a spring break trip with her best friend Megan. Being an athlete it was not surprising that she felt a pain in her side, athletes get muscle cramps all the time. We decided to be cautious since she was traveling with another family and took her to our family doctor. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary but suggested an ultrasound. The test was done and Cassie left for Florida. The next few days changed our lives forever.
Shortly after the doctor identified the large tumor on Cassie’s left kidney she flew home early from her trip. They ran a week’s worth of tests and Cass had her first of what was to be many surgeries. After weeks of waiting for the pathology report Cassie was diagnosed with tubulocystic renal cell carcinoma, a rare form of kidney cancer. The doctors were hopeful the cancer was contained but further tests were run to check for metastasis. Unfortunately, the cancer had spread. What we soon learned about kidney cancer is once metastases occur it is considered “incurable but possibly controllable”. We received several opinions over her four-year battle and Cassie was always receiving the latest protocols. She once added up her treatments, which included seven major surgeries, eight different types of chemotherapy, three radiation bead therapies, countless cryoablation treatments, and more emergency room visits for infections or pain than she could remember.
She finished high school on time with honors. It was always important to be as “normal” as possible for Cass. She attended Michigan State University and was accepted into the Communication Science and disorders program with hopes of being a speech pathologist some day. She missed a lot of school for treatments and surgeries but remained on the Dean’s List the entire time. Cassie continued to stay positive through all of this, that’s not to say there weren’t some sleepless nights and tear-stained pillowcases.
Fighting the disease for Cassie was the easy part, she was a smart, goal-oriented student-athlete with a strong will to live. Fighting the emotional side effects of cancer was the difficult part. Though surrounded by family and friends, she felt alone in her private battle. We just couldn’t relate to her fear of the unknown … When do I tell someone new in my life I have cancer? Do I have to tell an employer one day, or is that my private business? Will I be able to have my own kids one day or has my cancer treatments left me infertile? Do I want to have children knowing there is a good chance they will lose their mom while they are young? When will I stop thinking every twinge of pain in my body is cancer? Will I ever be normal? What is my new normal? Will I die from this? These are just a few of the questions Cassie and young adults dealing with cancer ask themselves frequently. Cassie was one of the fortunate young adults; she was treated at a hospital that recognized the uniqueness of a young adult with cancer. Her social worker checked in on her frequently and encouraged her to engage in peer support available to her, specifically cancer camps.
Two years into her battle Cassie chose to attend Camp Mak-A-Dream’s young adult conference in Montana. She was anxious and apprehensive but took a chance; her thought was, “If nothing else, I’ve never been to Montana.” Her week at camp changed the way she viewed cancer forever. It was a huge comfort to be around peers that felt the same things she did. While no one had answers to their questions, they told their own stories and somehow found strength in knowing they weren’t alone. Friendships were built and they continued to stay in touch with each other through the years.
Cassie also attended First Descents kayaking camp in North Carolina. The camaraderie and the ability to face life’s difficulties through an athletic challenge gave these unique young adults the strength to face fears. When she was at camp, Cassie was four weeks post surgery and recovering slowly. She was a decent swimmer but hated fish and had a significant apprehension of rapids. We thought she was crazy choosing kayaking, but knew it was important to her because facing fears other than cancer gave her a sense of accomplishment. There was literally a swagger about her after that adventure. We believe that it was those camp experiences that gave Cassie the inner peace to not just live life but experience it in the moment and appreciate all the gifts God gave her.
We believe that it was those camp experiences that gave Cassie the inner peace to not just live life but experience it in the moment and appreciate all the gifts God gave her.
In January of 2012, Cassie was told by her oncologist, “There is nothing more that we can do.” The cancer had attacked her liver along with other vital organs and she was beginning liver failure. She went home in the care of hospice. The final 42 days of Cassie’s life family and friends surrounded her. We told stories, asked questions, shared our fears, laughed and cried. Cassie wanted every young adult diagnosed with cancer to be able to experience it with the same peer support and sense of adventure she did. We knew it would be our job to make her dream a reality. We walked Cassie up to heaven’s gate and she entered on March 1, 2012. Cassie’s work here was done but ours was just beginning.
While Cassie was at First Descents Camp she wrote a letter to herself that was mailed to her six months after the camp finished. She was at home in hospice care when it arrived. We read the letter together; in it she described the week and then gave herself some advice. She reminded herself to “Stay active, eat healthy but enjoy junk food every so often. Never stop dreaming, when you feel good and even when you feel crappy, make life an adventure.” The advice I liked the best was “Don’t take the easy road, take risks”.
Our hope at The Cassie Hines Shoes Cancer Foundation is for every young adult diagnosed with cancer to take a chance on the unknown, try peer support and realize that life is always worth it… take risks!