“I'll never forget how one week of my childhood has made such a big impact on me as an adult – my wish is a piece of me that has never left me to this day. My love for Christmas is because of Make-A-Wish and every year at this time I look back and remember how my wish brought my family back together.”
When Sandy moved from her hometown of Rochester, New York to Phoenix in 1978, she faced many different challenges. She missed her friends back east. She struggled with living in a broken home. Yet her biggest challenge was still ahead – a deadly diagnosis.
Only a few years after she moved Sandy began to have a hard time breathing and walking. Her family took her to the doctor and, after an x-ray, her life completely changed.
“My siblings were in the room with me when we received the news – cancer that was terminal. They found a lump on my chest. It was Stage 4 Hodgkin’s disease,” said Sandy, who was 13 years old when she was diagnosed.
“I was immediately sent to Phoenix General Hospital and doctors started putting tubes the size of garden hoses in my chest,” she recalled. “The doctors told me if I had waited any longer, I would have drowned from the fluid in my lungs.”
There was urgency in everything the doctors did and said. Urgency that had Sandy very scared.
“I can still remember my brother, who was in the military, coming into my hospital room in his dress whites.” she said. “I saw the look on everyone’s faces when my doctors said I didn’t have long to live. I was thinking about how I would never get married, never grow up, never have kids of my own – things a kid should never have to think about at that age.”
Sandy started chemotherapy treatment but she didn’t have much hope.
“I remember things so vividly, it’s still just as fresh if I take a deep breath,” she continued. “I was 67 pounds and the chemo was so grueling and burned my arms. I still have the scars, physically and emotionally.”
It was in between chemotherapy treatments when Sandy first heard about the possibility of a wish.
“My sister was working in advertising in New York, where she heard about Make-A-Wish and decided to refer me for a wish,” said Sandy. “It was a time in my life that was tough for my family even before I was sick. I never really had a childhood. My sister knew I needed this a wish to keep my spirits positive, to think about something good.”
Sandy’s wish – to go back to New York for a white Christmas with her family – became that positive and wonderful experience to look forward to, taking her mind off the difficult treatments.
“It was the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “I still remember my wish granters, Dolly and Linda, and when I landed in New York my family and friends I grew up with were there to greet me. They are friends I still keep in touch with to this day.”
Sandy was captivated by the magic of New York during Christmas time – everything she missed about being home. She was able to see Santa, cut down a Christmas tree, play in the snow and spend time with her friends and family for the first time in many years.
She even remembers the outfit she wore on her wish day.
“My hair was starting to fall out on my wish, so I had a white beanie to match my jacket,” she said. “Every year I share a photo of me with cancer to remind people how precious life is, but the picture of me and Santa from my wish is my favorite.”
After Sandy returned to Phoenix, the good news kept on coming. Her doctors tried an experimental treatment and, against all odds, Sandy was cancer-free only one year after her wish.
“I had short hair going into my freshman year of high school, which luckily was in style at the time,” she said with a laugh. “I was healed by hope and faith and my wish is a part of that hope. I’m so grateful for my amazing doctors and everything they did.”
“I’ve talked to other cancer survivors about my wish, and how a simple part of my childhood has made such a big impact on me as an adult,” she continued. “My wish only lasted for one week, but it is such an important piece of my life that has never left me to this day. Now I’m using my time to give back to others and it’s all due to Make-A-Wish.”
Since her wish, Sandy’s love for Christmas is just as strong as when she was a child.
Every year before Halloween, she starts decorating for the holiday season and looks forward to her favorite time of year.
“My love for Christmas is because of Make-A-Wish and nothing can take away this gift I was given and the memories I made on my wish,” said Sandy, who is now married with one son, and about to celebrate her 49th birthday.
“I’m a survivor, so I try to do everything I can to take care of myself,” she continued. “The doctors told me I would never be able to have kids, but I married my husband Ray, who I've been with for 26 years, and my son Dustin is my miracle baby who is now 23 years old. The doctors told me I wouldn’t survive, but I became a personal trainer for 14 years and now I’m giving back to other people who need my help."
After volunteering for several months, Sandy recently was hired as a restorative partner helping Alzheimer's and Dimentia patients with physical therapy.
"Many of them are veterans and I want to be able to share my story with these people to inspire them and give them hope," she said. "I believe nothing is an accident and everything happens for a reason, and it’s just amazing to see what my life has become.”