Nfld. & Labrador

Cancer and a pandemic stole his last year of high school, but this student refuses self-pity

Josh Skinner, 18, could not wait to get back to class to see his friends for the final months of school. Then COVID-19 happened.

'Feeling sorry for yourself really doesn't get you anywhere,' says Josh Skinner, 18

Josh Skinner spent most of the past nine months looking forward to graduating from high school with his friends at Corner Brook Regional High. (Submitted)

A western Newfoundland teenager has every reason to feel sorry for himself but — in spite of a cancer diagnosis and then COVID-19 forcing the cancellation of his Grade 12 graduation — Josh Skinner is determined to stay positive.

"As frustrating as that is, we've got to do what's best for everyone and keep everyone safe," said Skinner, 18, who lives in Massey Drive, just outside Corner Brook. 

Skinner was diagnosed in July 2019 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a form of soft tissue cancer. He's had surgeries, radiation therapy and chemotherapy, all of which have required him to be in St. John's, away from home and friends.

Skinner had hoped to be back with friends at Corner Brook Regional High by mid-May, and had hoped to graduate from Grade 12 with them during ceremonies in June.

In fact, that's all he'd been looking forward to for the past nine months.

"When I got diagnosed … the first thing my oncologist told me was, 'We'll get you back home so you can graduate,'" said Skinner.

"'And I said, 'That's going to be wicked, and I can't wait.'"

But COVID-19 changed all of those plans, as the pandemic led to the cancellation of high school graduation ceremonies across the province this spring.

Skinner's parents say he always finds a reason to smile and joke around. This photo is from his first day of chemotherapy, Sept. 3, 2019. (Submitted)

One more disappointment

Skinner said he's disappointed to have to wait even longer to spend time with friends, but he knows it's necessary.

For him, instead of being a year of making more memories with his classmates from the past 13 years of school, it's become a time of great loss.

"Once I got diagnosed, a lot of things got taken away from me — little things that I took for granted, like seeing my friends every single day," said Skinner.

Skinner and his parents, Brian and Krista, had this family photo taken around the time of Josh's cancer diagnosis in July 2019. (Submitted)

At home in the Corner Brook area, Skinner drove himself wherever he wanted to go to spend time with friends, but he doesn't drive in St. John's and his friends are far away.

"I went from feeling like I was 17 at the time, to almost seven again," he said.

Risk of contracting virus

Now, with COVID-19 in the province, Skinner and his family have had to adjust again, to being even more cautious than usual in order to ensure they don't get the virus.

Since he's still going through chemotherapy, Skinner is considered immunocompromised, and he'd be less able to fight off any illness.

He's typically had both parents with him at the Janeway hospital throughout his chemotherapy sessions, but that's now restricted to just one at a time due to COVID-19.

Feeling sorry for yourself really doesn't get you anywhere.- Josh Skinner

Skinner has a few more rounds of chemo to complete and one more surgery. He hopes all of them will be behind him by July, regardless of what happens with the pandemic.

"With all the bad that's going on, you need to latch onto something good and have a little bit of hope," said Skinner.

Skinner rang the bell at the Health Sciences Centre to mark the end of his radiation therapy sessions. (Submitted)

Friends keep him going

Getting back to the Corner Brook area to spend time with friends is still firmly in Skinner's sights.

"This pandemic may prolong that, but it doesn't change the end game, it doesn't change the goal: just to see everyone again and to be able to do the stuff that I enjoy with the people that I enjoy," he said.

He's encouraging his friends to focus on what they all plan to do after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, instead of focusing on the isolation and boredom.

Skinner celebrated his 18th birthday at Ronald McDonald House in St. John's. (Submitted)

"With anything that's negative, you always just got to stay positive," said Skinner.

"It's OK to sit and think about things, but feeling sorry for yourself really doesn't get you anywhere."

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About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.