Life’s OK for C.J.
Western Bay teen continues to thrive, despite rare illness
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.