“Cancer” is a scary word, and Katie Bunker learned that at an earlier age than most. At just 12 years old, she was diagnosed with advanced melanoma and endured multiple surgeries — followed by nearly a year of a difficult drug therapy.
More than a decade later, Bunker is looking to transform the darkness of cancer into something positive through Obliteride, a party-packed, bike-riding weekend event in Seattle dedicated to raising money for cancer research at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“It’s a whole event dedicated to this word people fear: cancer. And there’s so much empowerment and strength behind that word on that weekend,” said Bunker, 26, who now cares for other children going through cancer as a pediatric oncology nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “It can be so dark, but yet so much good can come out of a weekend surrounded by something that can be so painful.”
This Sunday, Bunker sets off on Obliteride’s 50-mile route, which hugs the southern shore of Lake Washington on its tour of Seattle and neighboring cities.
This is Bunker’s second year riding Obliteride and her second as a member of Team Baldy Tops. Although the team now rides in honor of many of its members’ loved ones, it was originally formed in dedication to one of Bunker’s former patients, a little girl named Allistaire who succumbed last year to an aggressive form of leukemia at age 6. Last year, in honor of Allistaire, members of Team Baldy Tops adorned their bike helmets with sparkly unicorn horns, which the girl would have adored.
Each nurse has certain patients who enter deeply into their heart, Bunker said, and it was like that for her and this special patient and her family. The glow that the giggly child left in Bunker’s memory is evident in the way the nurse’s eyes light up as she speaks about her “wild little chica” who loved silliness and bright colors.
Even though the depth of these friendships can sometimes make Bunker’s job hard — such as the times when she loses a young patient — it’s also what brings her joy and keeps her going.
At the kickoff party for last year’s Obliteride, Bunker and her companions ended up dancing with one of her former patients, a little girl, as live music played and the sun went down over Lake Union. The girl, who was still undergoing treatment for her illness, had to run off to her mother in the middle of the dancing to take the next dose of her many medicines. Then, she came back to dance some more.
That moment, for Bunker, was emblematic of the spirit she loves about Obliteride — and seeing how much it moved her companions helped to remind her of why she does what she does.
“That sparked a fire within me, again. I take this for granted; I’m so lucky that I get to care for these kids,” Bunker said. “And I’m so lucky I get to be a part of this community that’s so on fire for research and curing cancer.”
Bunker’s own cancer experiences have given her a special perspective in the more than two years she’s been taking care of kids with cancer at Seattle Children’s.
She knows, for example, that kids think of cancer differently than the way an adult might. More than a decade ago, after she was diagnosed with melanoma, it never occurred to her that she might die. What really weighed on her was that the cancer made her different from her peers — an excruciating thing for a middle-schooler.
Though she felt tremendously supported by family and friends, still, she remembers a sense of isolation through her treatment and its aftermath. She’d get up early before school and stand in front of her mirror, trying to place a hat just right to get her thin wisps of newly grown hair to lay flat on her head. Naturally an irrepressibly bubbly, multi-sport athlete, Bunker became depressed and withdrawn as a result of her treatment. She was so fatigued even months after treatment ended that she couldn’t manage the few minutes of standing during Sunday Mass.
As side effects resolved, it took about a year for her to start to feel like her old self again and several more years to feel confident that the ordeal was behind her.
Looking back now, Bunker wishes she could just tell herself at that time: Be yourself. Open up.
She knows each kid is an individual and has their own way of experiencing cancer. Their struggles may be very different from hers. But she wants them to know that they are not alone.
One of Bunker’s roles at Seattle Children’s is to educate newly diagnosed patients and their families about the child’s disease and what they can expect. Besides the medical information, one of the things she always tells parents is: “Promote normalcy.”
In her case, ironically, she felt most normal during her visits to the hospital. (Bunker was treated at Fred Hutch’s clinical care partner, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.) Her nurses would joke with her. A beloved chaplain would chat with her about boys and lipstick and other normal teenage topics. For that time, she didn’t feel so different.
Today, she tries to do the same for her patients — let them be kids. And it’s that irrepressible, childlike spirit of the kids she cares for that Bunker loves so much about her job.
“Kids are so fun. They’re so resilient,” she said. “They have a pretty awesome perspective on life. Kids aren’t jaded, and they’re curious and compassionate — and little spitfires.”
In Obliteride, Bunker finds the embodiment of the hope she feels for the future on behalf of the kids she loves — including children, like Allistaire, for whom today’s treatments are not enough. In just the two years she has been at her job, she’s seen the rise of new experimental therapies for pediatric cancers such as immunotherapies, in which patients’ immune cells are genetically engineered to fight their tumors and leave healthy cells alone.
Bunker knows that she and other Obliteride supporters are helping scientists to keep those innovations coming. Already, the tide is turning.
“Retrospectively, we have so much to be grateful for,” she said. “And though we are presented with hardships — cancer being a huge hardship — it’s so awesome that there are a lot of times where we aren’t fearful of the word ‘cancer’ anymore — because of research.”
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Bunker and her teammates are raising money for Fred Hutch through Obliteride through Sept 15. You can support their fundraising efforts via the Obliteride website:
Interested in participating? You can register in person on Obliteride weekend! Join Bunker, Team Baldy Tops and the thousands of others who will be riding to help cure cancer faster.
Susan Keown is an associate editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has written about health and research topics for a variety of research institutions, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sejkeown.