When I was around 10, my parents announced we were going on a family vacation. This wasn't unusual; we went on vacations, but this one was super sudden, in the middle of a school week, and they were super chill about not having us bring homework or anything (which was NOT normal for my parents).
We went to Toronto and saw Phantom of the Opera, my sister Katie's then-favorite musical. It was cool, we had a good time, then we came home and kinda moved on with our little-kid lives. A few weeks later, I came up from the basement to find my parents in the kitchen, hugging each other and sobbing uncontrollably. I was clearly pretty shaken by this. My mom and dad called my sister into the kitchen and told us that a few months before, Katie — who has fiery red hair and extraordinarily fair skin — had had a routine checkup, and doctors found a discolored mark on her skin. As a precaution, they had taken a biopsy of the mark, not thinking they'd find anything.
They came back with a diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma and told my parents Katie didn't have long to live. My parents got a second opinion, and the second doctor concurred with the first. It was melanoma, incredibly aggressive, and there wasn't much they could do to stop the spread. Out of what must have been just insane grief and desperation, they went to a third doctor to absolutely confirm the results. He did another round of tests but warned them that they should start preparing for the worst.
While they waited for the results of that test, my parents decided the most important thing was to make Katie's remaining time as joyful and meaningful as they could. So, without explaining to her why, they asked her what she would most like to do in the world, and she said, "Go see Phantom of the Opera." After the trip, they knew they would get a call with the results of the final test, and they knew that they would likely have to sit us down and explain to me, my baby brother, and their only daughter that she was going to get very sick very soon and then go see Jesus (which is probably almost exactly how they would have phrased it — they are very religious).
What I walked in on in the kitchen was the moment just after the third doctor had told them the first test was a mistake. Katie did have cancer, but a much more mild and benign form than the other doctors had believed. It could be resolved with a minor surgery and monitoring for a year or so. A third test confirmed the results of the second one. Katie was going to be OK.
To this day, I think about how hard it must have been for my mom and dad to put on a brave face as they watched their two little red-headed kids bounce around Toronto completely unaware we were on a Make-A-Wish-style "sadcation." It must have been excruciating, but they handled it with grace and about as much selfless love as I ever saw, before or since. Katie's 36 now and has a little boy of her own.
I had leukemia when I was 3, and while I don't remember being diagnosed, my parents definitely do. My mom says she remembers when my foot began hurting uncontrollably in the middle of the night, and when she called the doctor who, without missing a beat, told us to go to the emergency room. She remembers the way that emergency room sounded and smelled when the doctors told her I had a dangerously low hemoglobin count. She remembers when she had to send me, her toddler, into an operating room alone to get a spinal tap. She remembers when my immune system was so weak that chicken pox nearly killed me. She remembers when I started chemo and lost my hair, and when kids at school made fun of me, saying I looked like a boy. She remembers when we had to leave my Make-A-Wish trip at Disneyland because my central line — a device installed in my chest to make near-daily blood withdrawals less painful — got infected. But above all, she says she remembers knowing that hope was stronger than fear. She remembers praying and convincing my nonreligious dad to pray as well. She remembers that neither of them ever lost faith that I would get better — and I did.
Even though I don't remember any of that, I look at my parents today and can still see the hope in their eyes. They never wavered; they gave me unconditional strength and support before I was even potty-trained. Their love kept me alive then, and it still keeps me alive now.
When I was a senior in high school, my mom was diagnosed with stage 3 uterine sarcoma, a very aggressive cancer known to be one of the most reoccurring. Growing up, my mom had always been really healthy and strong. I mean, I can't even remember a time where she got a cold or a runny nose. Needless to say, my entire family was pretty blown away by the news. I saw my mom in a state of weakness I've never seen her in before: sleeping excessively, losing her hair, vomiting from the treatment... It was a lot. My dad, without thinking twice, took an early retirement so he could be with my mom during her aggressive chemo treatment. He stayed in the hospital with her night and day for weeks straight at a time on a monthly basis for six months. Literally he would eat, sleep, and shower at the hospital just so she was never alone even for a minute. What a guy.
Fast-forward six months, after she completed her aggressive treatment: The doctors said that if she were cancer-free for eight years, the likelihood of any cancer coming back was very slim. Alas, the cancer came back...10 years later (two years after we thought we were in the clear after living in fear for the first eight). This time, it was in her breast: stage 2. And yup, there my dad was again, never leaving her side even while he was going through his own severe health issues.
As of four months ago, my mom is cancer-free. Again. Mom is a two-time cancer survivor: the first time, against the odds; the second time, against her will. If there were ever a true hero...my parents are it. #blessed
I was 2 months old when cancer first impacted my life: My father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away two months later. My incredible mother took on her new role as a single mother to an infant and 6-year-old and instilled in us the meaning of true perseverance. Fast-forward many years: Our family found itself in an all-too-familiar situation. Having already survived stage 2 breast cancer, my mother was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer. Truth be told, my entire life has been nuanced by cancer in some way, but each experience has shaped me. If my family has learned anything it's (1) Have a sense of humor. Was it terrifying going with my mom to get her wig fit and see this woman in the mirror I didn't recognize? Yes. But in hindsight, can I laugh at the fact that her first wig made her look like the mother from The Brady Brunch? Absolutely (Don't worry — she got a new one). And (2) Know your family history. The impact cancer has had on my family extends far beyond just my parents. I am grateful that I'm armed with that knowledge and power to be proactive with my health.
My grandmother had been complaining about pain in her lower abdomen for nearly a year before the doctors finally listened to her and did an x-ray, revealing she had stage 4 ovarian cancer. The prognosis didn't look good, so we began to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It's now been five years. She still has cancer and is still fighting it, but most of her days are good days now. She's gone into remission several times. During the first couple rounds of chemo, every time she'd declare it to be the last time, that she just couldn't do it again. Five years later, I never hear her say that anymore. When I was growing up, she was a bit of a pushover. Now she's so much stronger than I ever could have guessed; she's a fighter. She's more demanding and protective of what she needs and wants. Seeing this in her has made me a stronger woman, fighting and demanding for what I want as well. I've learned that when tragic things happen, it's OK to allow yourself some time to grieve but not to wallow in it or let it take you over, because taking stock of the positive things in your life is what's going to keep you motivated and fighting.
Growing up, I was in the sun A LOT. I played tennis throughout my childhood and was always in the pool. I've always been fair-skinned and freckly, and I have a good amount of moles everywhere, but still, looking tan was something I desired. I even tried tanning beds in my teenage years (eeeek). I remember walking out of the tanning salon once and feeling a bit of an itch on my back, but I didn't think anything of it. About a year later, I went to get a mole on my butt checked out, just 'cause it was a big one. When I got to the doctor, I noticed he acted a bit concerned about another mole on my upper back, which I didn't even know was there. He immediately told the nurse to check it out. They razored the thing, and about a week later called me urging me to come to their office again, and to bring my mom with me. My mom was unable to come, and I wrecked on my way to the doctor (yup...), so I told them I couldn't make it on that day. They were kinda mad at me, and I just didn't get what was going on. I went by myself three days later. They sat me down and told me my mole was cancer. I just stared out the window for like five minutes. I was 21 and felt like I wanted to erase every single minute I had ever purposefully been under the sun. I felt really stupid. The next thing he said was "You're not going to die." I wasn't thinking I was going to die just yet, but that phrase was not a horrible one to hear. He then explained it was only stage 1 and that they'd remove it that same Friday. So that's what happened. They removed a big chunk of my back to make sure I didn't have remaining cancer cells floating around...and after that experience, I go to the dermatologist every three months, always ask my doctor to be super thorough, and tell my entire family they are not allowed to walk around without sunblock, and definitely NO LYING OUT. We are all pale as hell and have tons of moles.
My family has been through a lot of stuff I don't think many others have. I've seen my parents scared and cry, but not as much as when we got the call that my aunt was diagnosed with lung cancer three years ago. She's the strongest person I know — a constant inspiration who's not afraid to stand up for what she believes in or voice an unpopular opinion. And for a second, I realized I might not be able to tell her all this stuff or keep learning from her, all because of a stupid tumor. But then I remembered who she was, and that due to her nature, she would run through this obstacle that had landed straight in her path. She'd be OK because she was determined to be. The summer she went through chemo was the closest my family has ever been. Weekly barbecues, one-on-one time, new conversations with cousins who had become distant over the years... In a weird way, this terrible thing had strengthened our family and made me grateful for the newfound openness we all had. My aunt still has her rough days, but I've never heard her complain, and there's been no new growth on the mass. I'm overwhelmingly thankful for her fight.
When my father was in college, his father — my grandfather — died of lung cancer. I heard about this when I was little, but I never understood how hard it must have been on my dad. My dad told me that he was 20 when it happened, and when I was a kid, 20 seemed as old as could be! I had no concept of how painful it would be to lose a parent that young.
As I've grown up and passed the age when my dad lost his father, I've come to a much deeper understanding of what my dad went through at such a young age. He nearly flunked all of his college classes that year and almost had to drop out of school. It put his young life into a tailspin, and I have a better sense now of how that shaped his adult personality.
I can't image losing my father, who I love so much, at any age, and I feel so sad for the young man he was when he lost his.
In 2008, my first cousin Harry was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called osteosarcoma, which is cancer of the bone. He had been complaining of knee pain for weeks, but being an athlete, he expected it to be a sports-related injury. Upon diagnosis, he was faced with the decision either to amputate his leg below the right knee and get a prosthesis or essentially have a bone transplant, which would severely limit his mobility. Still wanting to remain active, Harry decided to follow through with the amputation — he even had a prosthetic leg outfitted for his surfboard! Through the surgery and rounds of painful chemo, he maintained a positive outlook that in all honesty was shocking to his friends and family. He was just going with the flow. Things were better for a while...until we learned that the amputation had not stopped the cancer’s spread. With nodes found in his lungs and eventually lymph nodes, we all had to accept that this cancer was not going to be cured. Harry passed in 2010 after a very hard battle with cancer. He did not want a funeral and asked to be cremated and scattered in the ocean because he didn’t want people to mourn him in that way. Instead, our family held a memorial where we celebrated his life. His positive outlook during extremely horrible circumstances is something that has stuck with me since. His vibrancy and passion for life inspires me to make each day count and to truly live each moment. For myself but for Harry, too.
One day in high school, I noticed my best friend, Jon, was consistently missing swim team practice. Granted, we all hated swim practice and generally looked for any excuse we could to get out of it, so I didn't think much of it. But it was concerning when he started missing full-on weeks. The only time Jon and I really talked seriously about whatever was going on in our lives was late at night after the monthly barbecue at his parents' house, sitting in the jacuzzi with the rest of our close friends. You see, Jon was always the type of person to organize a gathering for people to hang. He'd grill carne asada and veggies for everyone. He'd make a fire for us to sit around. He'd ask you about how you were doing. He was very much the glue that held our friend group together.
So it was fitting it was at one of these gatherings at Jon's house I asked him what was going on, like was he quitting swim team for good?
"They found a tumor in my kidney. It's not serious. But I need surgery."
Me, being an immature 17-year-old kid, didn't really know how to respond. It actually took me a month or so to really process it. I remember standing at his side when he woke up from surgery with a few of our other friends and still being unsure of what to say.
"Did it hurt?" I asked.
Jon had one kidney removed. He's since revealed that it was cancer. We ended up going to the same college. We ended up in the same fraternity. We even lived as roommates for three years. He's still my best and closest friend today. He's been the best man at several of my friends' weddings and will surely be mine one day, which is a testament to how good of a friend he is. I think a lot about him having cancer and how despite it, he's still the most optimistic, genuine, and caring person I know. He never let it bring him or anyone around him down, and that's why he's truly an inspiration to me.