Saskatoon Family Adds Golden Touch to Childhood Cancer Awareness
Ask 10-year-old Roan Dahlen what it’s like to be at the end of a three-year battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and he’ll respond with quiet confidence. “It feels like a big thing just went away,” he says. “I don’t have to worry about it anymore.”
In July, Roan marked the end his lengthy treatment plan with the removal of a port that delivered lifesaving medication. Now in remission, Roan won’t be considered cured until he reaches the five-year cancer-free mark, but for Roan and his family, this was a major milestone.
“It was the first time he got really emotional in this whole time,” says his mother Coralee Abbott. “He was in recovery and there were a few tears. He asked me, ‘Please mom, tell me it’s all over?’ We’ve been fighting our way through it for 1,241 days. We’re now in the PTSD phase of this, trying to figure out where we go from here. You look back and can’t believe what you went through.”
In the spring of 2016, Roan was deep into hockey season. He was pale, tired and had a nagging cold that just wouldn’t go away. “We kept taking him to the doctor and they would give him antibiotics. They would help for a bit, but the cold would always return,” says Abbott. “We thought he had mono. Five hours after a blood test, we got the call that his blood counts were dangerously low and we headed to the emergency room immediately.”
The diagnosis was swift and hit the family hard. “My sister had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia only eight months before Roan’s diagnosis and was given two months to live,” says Abbott. “We had to have the conversations about cancer with the kids, so Roan was really aware of how serious this was.” Abbott’s sister was given a stem cell transplant and continues to receive treatment. Abbott knew Roan’s battle was just beginning.
After his diagnosis, support for Roan flooded in. An employee of City Perks, the family’s Saskatoon coffee shop, created a Team Roan Facebook page. Family and friends from school, hockey and baseball rallied around them with meals, gifts and messages of encouragement. The treatments weakened Roan’s immune system, but he forged ahead bolstered by the support. When he wasn’t in hospital or receiving treatment, Roan was back on the ice. “I tried to forget about it, tried to be normal. I was bored of sitting in the house doing nothing and hockey is my favourite sport,” he says. “I was more tired, but being on the ice felt comfortable.”
“Roan’s the kind of kid that the more somebody tells him he can’t do something, the more he wants to do it,” says Abbott. “His oncologist encouraged us to let Roan be the judge. They were always telling us to let him do what he felt he could, so he continued to play hockey and baseball during his treatments.”
Gold is the colour for childhood cancer and when she saw gold hockey laces in the store, Abbott grabbed them and encouraged Roan to re-lace his skates. Abbott was sure it would be a sign to others facing the disease. “I didn’t want to wear them at first because I didn’t want to stand out,” says Roan. “But mom convinced me it was a good way to show support for other kids who are fighting cancer.”
What began as a small gesture, quickly caught on. Roan’s teammates along with many others in the sports community switched out their laces in support. When the news reached one of Roan’s favourites Maple Leafs coach, Mike Babcock, he laced up and sent a video message of support. “After that, I got to meet him at the Maple Leafs game and he gave me a hug,” Roan explains. “He said, ‘Hey! How’s it going buddy?’ and we shook hands.”
September marks Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and the start of a new hockey season. The family is hoping the gold lace movement will continue to grow and raise awareness. Abbott knows that sharing their experience and keeping the gold laces visible will encourage others facing similar diagnoses. “Cancer is a lonely experience. Maybe our story will help others and prove that your kids can do anything,” she says. “We just want to give back.”
Roan shies away from being called an inspiration and explains what it feels like in the way he knows best. “It’s like when I had a game just after treatment and I scored five goals,” he explains. “I scored three top shelf and one in the five-hole. It’s an honour.”
Roan’s message to kids facing a cancer diagnosis is simple, “Work on. Fight on. Just keep going!”