Life’s OK for C.J.

West­ern Bay teen con­tin­ues to thrive, de­spite rare ill­ness

The Compass - - FRONT PAGE - BYMIKA REKAI

In many ways, C.J Whalen is a nor­mal teenager. The 15-year-old wears fash­ion­able glasses and has patches of green in her short brown hair.

While she ad­mits to oc­ca­sion­ally ar­gu­ing with her two younger sis­ters, she lights up when she talks about her fam­ily and friends. An avid reader, C.J dreams of be­com­ing a writer or jour­nal­ist, and has a part-time job de­liv­er­ingThe Com­pas­sonce-a-week.

To see her, one would never guess that this an­i­mated young girl has been fight­ing cancer for more than eight years, and has to take 400 mil­ligrams of chemo­ther­apy drugs ev­ery night.

“Peo­ple al­ways come up to me to tell me how nor­mal she looks,” C.J’s mother, Christine Whalen, says dur­ing an in­ter­view at the fam­ily’s West­ern Bay home.

In 2003, C.J was di­ag­nosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer that is rarely found in chil­dren. Later that year, the seven-year-old un­der­went a bone mar­row trans­plant — her three-year-old sis­ter Hi­lary was the donor — at The Hos­pi­tal for Sick Chil­dren in Toronto.

While the trans­plant was ini­tially suc­cess­ful, the cancer re­turned in 2005. When given the choice of un­der­go­ing an­other trans­plant, the fam­ily choose to con­tinue with chemo­ther­apy in­stead.

While the last eight years have been ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for her and her fam­ily, Christine Whalen has learned to live “the new nor­mal.”

“ When the doc­tors say your child is sick, it is life-al­ter­ing,” she says. “ You can never go back to how things were be­fore. It never gets eas­ier. You just need to em­brace it, and try to make the most of it.”

In 2003, Christine Whalen left her job to care for her daugh­ter full-time. She al­ways has a bag packed in case C.J needs to be rushed to the Janeway hos­pi­tal in St. John’s.

It is al­ways dif­fi­cult, she says, but the sup­port she has had from the com­mu­nity has been in­valu­able to her fam­ily.

“It’s been amaz­ing. You’d think af­ter eight years it would dis­con­tinue some­what. But no, ev­ery­day some­one asks about C.J. and wants to help.”

Christine adds, “Some­times it takes some­thing like this to see how won­der­ful peo­ple are.”

A will­ing am­bas­sador

Be­yond the peo­ple in their com­mu­nity, Christine Whalen cred­its or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Ron­ald McDon­ald House Char­i­ties of Canada and the Chil­dren’s Wish Foun­da­tion for help­ing the fam­ily get through some very hard times.

When C.J. was un­der­go­ing a bone mar­row trans­plant, the Whalen fam­ily stayed at the Ron­ald McDon­ald house in Toronto.

The house ac­com­mo­dates fam­i­lies who have chil­dren re­ceiv­ing treat­ment for se­ri­ous ill­nesses at nearby hos­pi­tals. When the Whalens heard that a Ron­ald McDon­ald house was go­ing to be opened in St. John’s, they im­me­di­ately vol­un­teered to help raise aware­ness about the value of the char­ity.

Christine and C.J have at­tended fundrais­ers and acted as am­bas­sadors for the new Ron­ald McDon­ald house, which is hop­ing to break ground in St. John’s this year.

“ When your child is in the hos­pi­tal, you can spend over $100 a night on a ho­tel.” Christine says, “But we were able to stay in a four-per­son unit at the Ron­ald McDon­ald House for $25 a night, with a kitchen. It made a huge dif­fer­ence for us, so as soon as I heard they were open­ing one near the Janeway, I called them up and asked what we could do.”

A wish come true

And in 2003, C.J was also cho­sen by the Trin­ity-Con­cep­tion Chap­ter of the Chil­dren’s Wish Foun­da­tion as a “ Wish Child.” Her wish was to go with her fam­ily to the Dis­ney World Re­sort in Or­lando, Florida.

Al­though she did not re­ceive med­i­cal clear- ance for the trip for over a year-and-a-half, C.J. and her fam­ily did fi­nally get to Florida, where C.J. lived her wish and hugged Mickey.

While Christine Whalen ad­mits that it’s still hard to cope some­times with the re­al­i­ties of her daugh­ter’s ill­ness, it’s mem­o­ries like these that keep her spir­its up.

While she some­times wor­ries about the fu­ture, and what will hap­pen when C.J. is grown up, she tries to fo­cus on the present.

When asked about the fu­ture, C.J has no trou­ble say­ing what she looks for­ward to.

“I’m re­ally ex­cited to get my (driver’s) li­cence soon,” she says, with a glint of mis­chief in her eyes.

When her mother jumps in to add that she’ll ac­tu­ally be get­ting a learner’s per­mit, C.J. barely hears her. You can tell she’s al­ready think­ing about nights out in the car with her friends.

Al­though her child­hood has been a dif­fi­cult one, it doesn’t look like any­thing on earth can stop her from liv­ing her teenage years to the fullest.

C.J Whalen of West­ern Bay (left), with her mother, Christine in the back­ground, speaks about the health chal­lenges she’s over­come in re­cent years.

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