Caroline Haniak works as the Teenage Cancer Trust Youth Support Coordinator for the North West of England. Caroline works with 16 - 24 year olds who are diagnosed with cancer. Her role is to provide psychosocial support and help them maintain a sense of ‘normality’ whilst they go through treatment.
I remember the day I went for my interview to be a Youth Support Coordinator. I remember walking in to the ‘Cancer Hospital’, walking through a waiting room filled with people with head scarfs on and in wheelchairs and I remember thinking “Can I do this?”
I didn’t know much about cancer, except that it had killed my grandpa when I was 5. I had borrowed the film My Sister’s Keeper to help me prep for my interview but hadn’t actually got round to watching it, which I realise now was probably fate intervening. To this day I believe that if I had watched that film before my interview I would have been a no show; I was a complete and utter emotional wreck after watching it. My fear of death and dying was overwhelming and I couldn’t help but think I was making a total mistake taking on a job like this.
I’ve always been really passionate about working with young people, however, and this must have come across in my interview, more so than my fear, as I was offered the job on the spot.
As a Youth Support Coordinator I not only offer psychological support on a 1:1 basis but I also organise events where young people can meet others in a similar situation and are given the chance to push their own boundaries and do things that they never thought they’d be able to do again. Never did I think I would be pushing my own physical boundaries at the same time. I’ve climbed 30ft poles and jumped off, I’ve abseiled down a cliff face, I’ve sailed on a yacht in Scotland, I’ve met some celebrities, and even been on stage at the Royal Albert Hall, all of which have been alongside our patients.
The biggest challenge, however, has been working with the young people when they are going through the worst of it. Trying to reassure a 21-year-old girl that her boyfriend will still love her even though she has no hair. Listening to a young man on the phone to his cousin, pretending to be at work when he was actually hooked up to chemotherapy, because he didn’t want him to worry. Trying to help a 24 year old come to terms with the fact that he will never naturally father a child. Watching a young mum having to FaceTime her 3 year old daughter because she’s too radioactive to see her. Having a 19-year-old ask me what heaven will be like when he gets there and me not knowing how best to answer that question.
It’s through these challenges that I’ve learnt a lot about myself and in reflection I believe fate has led me into a job which has honestly changed my life (as corny as that sounds!). Before this job I had always tried to live a “safe” life. I hated spontaneity, I liked to weigh up the cost/benefit to everything, I felt I had to predict whether something was going to be worthwhile in the future before I bought it, I hoarded money for the ‘what if’ events - “what if the boiler breaks”, “what if my car doesn’t pass its MOT”, “Will I honestly wear these shoes more than once?”. If this job has taught me anything it’s the fact that in order to have memories you first have to live your life.
So I’ve made more of an effort in the last two years. I entered myself into a dance competition and placed 3rd, I went on an amazing spontaneous holiday in a yurt (even though I hated the idea of camping!), I went to watch my first opera, I decided to make Christmas Dinner for 10 people for the first time in my life last year, I went on my dream holiday to Paris (despite the cost) and took up the immense challenge of making my own bridesmaid dresses for my wedding this November.
I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have in my own life and make the most of it whilst I have it. I almost feel like I owe it to those young people who don’t survive their cancer journey or who have to live with a life limiting disease. I’ve learnt to take risks, to be a bit more fearless in life and to create the memories now…today…in this moment. Instead of waiting.
Life is a precious gift and sometimes we forget that it’s not always guaranteed.
I’m reminded of this daily when I witness the remarkable strength and resilience that young people have. When a young girl who has been bed bound for 6 months because of a brain tumour pushes herself to learn how to walk again during one of our residential trips. When a young man, who knows his life will be too short, giggles uncontrollably with his sister at one of our family days. When a 19-year-old girl, who continues to battle depression, speaks out about her journey to a newspaper in order to raise awareness of cancer for other young girls. When a self-conscious young lady builds up the confidence to take her wig off in public at our social group.
So what is it you are putting off? Why are you waiting? Make each day count, take on that challenge, plan that holiday, enter that competition, make that event happen and push your own boundaries. Live your life now and bask in those memories forever.