Dear Doctor Bostrom: Cancer, Part Two

(A Real Letter)

Dear Doctor Bostrom,

Hello. You probably don’t remember me, and that’s just fine. It’s been a while. There have been lots of babies and young adults and children since you knew me, likely hundreds of them.

I don’t remember you much either. You’re a character in a fairy tale, one that I’ve been told since childhood. While you weren’t endowed with any magical powers or amazing physical attributes, you became this mythical creature who I met once a year and asked me to walk down the hallway, made me get my blood drawn, gave me a tender smile behind round glasses.

Even though I love stories and have studied them for many years, my memory is rather faulty. It’s both a gift and a curse. I can watch movies over and over again, read books that I’ve read before, and be surprised every time. The ending is always familiar, but never remembered.

That’s how I feel about this fairy tale that my parents have told me my whole life. Like I should remember details, but they escape me. Most days I forget that the fairy tale was real, that I’m too a magical creature in this story with extraordinary powers of life.

The story is about how I got sick. How I was probably sick when I was born. How when my cells divided and divided and grew into a baby, some cells decided to grow faster and faster and push the proper inside organs out of the way. In the real world, they call such misguided cells tumors.

When I was nine months old, an old woman in the church held me and felt my spongy baby tummy that was hard in the wrong places, saw my sour and unhappy face, and asked my young mother – only a few years older than I am now – if she’d asked the doctor about that.

And so I went to a doctor, and then to another doctor, and finally to Children’s of Minnesota, where you were, Dr. Bostrom. Your online biography says you started in 1988; that’s the same year that I came to you. So I was one of your first patients, one of your first babies.

Have you heard about that movie that just came out, 50/50, the one with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogan, the one about cancer? I saw it recently. You might not like it – the doctor in it isn’t very nice. It’s a comedy, but it affected me more than I thought it would.

I don’t often cry at movies, but I did at this one, just a little bit. I cried at the end, when he goes into surgery and he finally breaks down in fear. But I also cried when he sat stunned, across from the mean doctor, getting what could be his death sentence. I cried not because I could remember being in those situations – I can’t – but because I imagined my beautiful mother and strong father sitting stunned across the desk from you, hearing those words. And my strong mother and beautiful father holding my hand as I was wheeled to surgery. It’s the darkest part of the fairy tale.

I have been given an amazing gift. I am a cancer survivor with no memories of the chemotherapy sickness or the pain of surgery recovery. I didn’t have to deal with bandages or hospital stays – I was there, but I was an uncooperative and unappreciative participant. I could barely speak, much less comprehend what was happening to me. And so I am a lucky one, and I am forever thankful for that.

But I feel like I have this legacy of cancer survival that I struggle to own because I haven’t been put through my paces. I have the physical scars, a few subconscious emotional ones, but no memories. I am blessed but feel like my scars are nothing more than a “two truths and a lie” misdirect or a way to check if I have too much cleavage showing.

Trying to grasp this “cancer survivor legacy” has taken many forms. When I was in elementary school, I modified my science fair project to show how a Hickman catheter worked. I consumed Lurlene McDaniel books, sentimental young adult fictions that always have a child with a fatal disease in them. Depressing, I know, but I felt a need to be connected to this world of pediatric cancer. And yet, I don’t really belong there.

I was in remission by the time I was three years old, thanks to you: the mystical healer, the witch doctor, the apothecary in my little tale. You saw it all, and you fixed it with your herbs and syringes and IVs. You and the nurses who put bows in my hair, played with me in the middle of the night, watched Sesame Street with me. You are my legacy of healing. I do not so much have a legacy of cancer, but I do have a legacy of healing, of being touched by gifted hands, yours and many others.

So, Dr. Bostrom, this note is just to say thank you. I’ve been in remission for 21 years. My one remaining kidney works just fine. And I have plenty of thick, long blonde hair.

I graduated from university almost two years ago and work full-time in higher education. I am pondering graduate school. I work out semi-frequently, and the only problems I have are running in a straight line and losing interest once my television program is over. My parents are still well, having recently sent their youngest child off to college. We have had a good life – a healthy life – and I am very well.

I hope you are well too, well in every sense of the word.

Please continue in the good work. There are babies who need you to help them so that they can grow into girls who love books and young women who love words and grown women who thank their pediatric oncologists with the words they love so much.

Sincerely and with great love and thankfulness,

Sara Kelm

Photo courtesy of


3 thoughts on “Dear Doctor Bostrom: Cancer, Part Two

  1. So, between grading AP papers, prepping for too many classes, and directing The Importance of Being Earnest, I've had no minutes to breathe. But I stopped by here on my way to bed, and was richly blessed. You amaze me, friend. I dream that one day we may write together (again). Blessings on your journey.

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