Students from both Collingwood’s high schools gathered for the annual Relay for Life cancer fundraiser, and this year they started the event with a challenge from one of their peers.
“Everything counts,” said 16-year-old Haven Raeburn-Gibson, a cancer survivor. “Put your hand on someone’s shoulder, say you’re there for them. Sometimes it does just come down to the dollars for donation, and other times it’s just telling people you’re aware of what’s going on and you’re there for them. It makes me feel just a little bit more confident.”
She was wearing a yellow shirt, and joined a group of others in the same yellow shirts for the first lap of the Relay for Life - the survivor lap.
Raeburn-Gibson is a Grade 10 student at Collingwood Collegiate Institute. She was diagnosed with cancer just before her Grade 8 graduation from Nottawa Elementary School.
On March 12, 2017, she underwent surgery at SickKids hospital to remove a malignant Sonic Hedgehog Medulloblastoma.
“It’s the fastest growing and most dangerous tumour a kid can have,” said Raeburn-Gibson.
The tumor was on her cerebellum, close to her spine. Though her doctors were quite sure they removed the cancer with the tumor, they recommended radiation and chemotherapy.
She had six weeks of radiation on her skull and spine, then eight treatments of what she calls “Big Chemo.”
That’s 30 doses of four different medications, with three weeks in between treatments.
“It would physically and mentally break my body,” said Raeburn-Gibson.
In the interim she would also have what’s called “push chemo.”
“It was to keep my body used to the chemo going in.”
In the days immediately following her Big Chemo treatments, she said she couldn’t leave the couch, and even the TV shows she watched had to be simple and quiet.
“I couldn’t physically drive myself to do anything in those days,” she said.
But she did drive herself as soon as she could. During the course of her chemotherapy, she went to summer camp and March Break camp, she performed in Clearview Community Theatre’s production of Anne of Green Gables, and she attended school when she could.
“It was physically hard, but I just mentally knew that I had to keep doing stuff,” she said. “One of my fears was developing depression … this was stuff to distract me. I could enter a different world.”
Her diagnosis and treatment brought with them many feelings, but she was a positive person before her diagnosis and she pushed herself to remain positive.
“It kind of scared me that maybe I would get to the point of depression where I didn’t want to live, and I didn’t want to get there,” said Raeburn-Gibson. “The chemo was painful, but I didn’t want to die. I just wanted it to be over.”
She told her story to the crowd of high school students, volunteers, and staff gathered to participate in the 2019 Relay for Life at CCI as part of the event’s opening ceremonies. The event, she said, was important for both survivors and participants.
“It kind of makes me realize … makes me know I’m not alone,” said Raeburn-Gibson. “Seeing everyone in the yellow shirts [survivor shirts] makes that feeling even stronger.”
Loneliness is another facet of the disease she had to fight off.
“This happened at the start of high school for me,” she said. “I walked into high school and I felt like the girl with cancer. I felt like I couldn’t really relate.”
Since then, she’s met friends at SickKids who have survived - or not - from the same tumor she had. And she’s made friends with her peers at CCI.
“I know there are people behind me,” she said.
Indeed, there were hundreds of people behind her and the other survivors for the first lap of Relay for Life.
The event continues all day with participants from CCI and Jean Vanier Catholic High School walking until 11 p.m. at the CCI track and football field. Relay for Life is a fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society.