He didn’t plan on making any friends at the Ronald McDonald House — but then he met Rowan.
A week before starting Grade 11, Nivan Sharma was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, the same cancer that claimed Terry Fox’s leg, and then life, decades ago.
“I’m the first one in my family to get it. But when we looked it up we saw the survival rates were high,” he said.
Cancer that starts in the bone is more rare. There were 405 Canadians were diagnosed with bone cancer in 2013, and 173 who died from the disease, according to Canadian Cancer Society statistics.
Three days after Nivan was diagnosed, he flew to Vancouver with his family, and they moved into the Ronald McDonald House for the next six months.
While the cancer uprooted his life, Nivan stayed positive and focused on his schooling. He worked it out with a counsellor back at Charles Hays Secondary School that he’d do a math course online. His tests would be administered at the BC Children’s Hospital.
Math was really the only subject he said he could do. During chemotherapy treatments his mind was often foggy, what Nivan calls “chemo brain.” Reading clocks even became a challenge at times.
But he had his family with him. His sister was at the University of British Columbia and she’d come hang out on weekends and play board games or watch Netflix.
“We are really close,” Nivan said of his family. “Especially after that experience we got really close.”
A couple months after he started treatment in Vancouver, he was wheeling along when he bumped into Rowan Wiltse, who was also in a wheelchair due to the tumour that had grown in her leg, the same side as Nivan’s.
“We probably ran into each other around 10 p.m. and we talked until 1 a.m. non-stop. We just sort of clicked on a friendship level. Never an awkward break in conversation. We realized how much we had in common,” he said.
They were 16 and 17 years old at the time. Their parents were both small business owners in a small community in B.C. They understood what each other was going through.
“It was just really odd how many similarities we had so we had a lot to talk about. We’d talk or text, send each other cancer memes or whatever,” Nivan said, smiling at the memory.
Rowan is the most positive human being he’d ever met. She had named her tumour Franklin and when it came time for her surgery she asked her parents to throw a goodbye party, with a cake that read “Goodbye Franklin.”
Both went through surgery to remove the tumour in their leg. Nivan had a knee replacement and a shin replacement, Rowan had her leg amputated.
“When I asked her how she was doing. She said, ‘This is fantastic, I don’t have to carry this dead weight around.’ Can’t damper her spirits at all,” Nivan said.
He finished his chemotherapy in June 2016, and headed back to Prince Rupert. But Rowan’s cancer was also in her lungs, so she had to continue treatment. The friends kept in touch. Nivan remembers receiving a text from Rowan on the opening night of the Charles Hays Secondary School musical The Little Mermaid in December 2016.
“I was getting a ride with my mom, and I got a text from Rowan saying tests were not good and the cancer is still growing — and that was the last possible chemo for her to take,” he said, pausing before continuing their story.
After Nivan’s birthday in February, he asked her how she was doing. His normally positive friend told him things weren’t great. Then one day in class, he heard from Rowan’s mom that her daughter wasn’t breathing. If he still wants to see her he can, but there wasn’t much time.
He booked flights the next day, but when he came home from school he found out his friend had passed away. She was 17 years old.
“We went to her hometown and I met the family and friends that she grew up with and I spoke at her celebration. Then the relay was right after. It was a big thing for me to do. I got there for the survivors’ walk to go around with everyone. It felt nice to be a part of a group,” he said.
Nivan has since graduated, and is studying at UBC where he’s joined the Canadian Cancer Association Club. The Relay for Life event is being held in September, and he’s volunteering and walking.
While his family and friends relay for Nivan — he relays for Rowan.