St. Jude gave me summertime back to savor

Even though this year is a little different, family has always been at my center.

  •  3 min

Diagnosed with cancer right before the summer of 1985, Mike Larsen had to adjust to a new way of life. Thanks to help from his family, he never missed a beat.

Mike Larsen

As I reflect on my nearly 40 years on this earth, certain moments stand out for me because of how they molded me into the man I am today: Meeting the love of my life, becoming a father twice and exploring the world, one summer at a time.

And having cancer.

I had just celebrated my sixth birthday when small patches showed up on my arms and I came down with a fever. Tests found my white blood cell count was elevated. I was first taken to the St. Jude affiliate in Peoria, Ill. The doctors there immediately referred us to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Immediately, as in: drop-everything-get-in-the-car-and-drive-all-evening-to-arrive-in-Memphis-in-the-middle-of-the-night immediately.

It wasn't quite the road trip I was expecting to kick off summer.

My mother was a teacher and summer break was upon us, so it made sense for her to stay with me in Memphis while my dad kept the home fires burning. Of course, her being a teacher meant I still had to do my schoolwork, even with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Looking back, I’m struck by just how unremarkable my cancer journey was. That’s not to say it wasn’t traumatic, because it unquestionably was. I consider myself fortunate because my parents, along with St. Jude, shielded me from the scariest parts, keeping my childhood as normal as possible. 

My normal childhood consisted of a lot of time exploring the world around me, which was a little more challenging while I was in treatment, but not entirely impossible.

I recall my time in Memphis being an extended summer vacation: meeting and hanging out with other St. Jude patients, being a tourist and visiting the Memphis Zoo, Graceland and Mud Island when my dad would drive down to see us. I even met Danny Thomas, who really was as gregarious and friendly as everyone says. St. Jude was very much a home away from home for me. But I missed home home. My front yard, where I played with rocks and sticks and caught frogs. Where I was learning to ride my bike. 

My treatment ended later that summer, and as soon I was back home I was back to playing catch with my dad, who was teaching me the finer points of America’s favorite pastime.  Summer, with its extended hours of sunshine, was the best time for a kid like me who loved being outdoors.

My parents had to ensure I stayed safe and happy. I was still a normal boy, after all, and playing was written into my DNA. Only now, as a father myself, do I realize how frightening my cancer was for them, too. Similar to what parents now are facing with COVID-19, my parents had to put up guardrails where they made the most sense. 

We still spent a lot of time outdoors and taking family trips. By the time I turned 14, we had been to 49 states and visited Canada and Mexico.

Cancer did not sideline me from having a childhood full of wonder or summers filled with adventure. Many of my fondest memories are of those road trip summer vacations, which brought out the explorer in me. If I were to pick a motto, it would be this one: life is short, and the world is wide.

I plan to take advice from my 6-year-old self and explore more. I hope I’ve instilled that same sense of adventure in my children, too.

Mike Larsen

Though COVID-19 has put our summer plans of world exploration on hold, we still managed to steal away for a short, socially-distanced summer trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains. While it wasn’t Europe or even Disney World, it was time I got to spend with my family, singing along in the car to Taylor Swift (my daughter’s favorite singer) and playing catch with my son as the sunset stretched longer and longer.

The summer of 1985 was memorable as the summer I was diagnosed with cancer. But it was also the summer I enjoyed being an ordinary kid.