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Teen Essay Series: What Doesn’t Kill You Only Makes You STRONGER

This is the sixth in a series featuring the finalists in our inaugural Teen Essay Contest. Priscilla Duran’s essay won 3rd place in the Personal Category.

essayPriscilla Duran PhotoMy name is Priscilla Yvonne Duran. I am fifteen years old and a sophmore at Adolfo Camarillo High School. My favorite subject in school is biology. When I am older I want to be a nurse and help other cancer patients. I love to travel and spend times with friends and family. On the weekends I like to spend the night with my grandma. During vacation I like to go camping and hang out at the beach with my friends. 

Cancer has impacted millions of people all over the world. Even though there are millions of stories about cancer, each and every one is different. Cancer has been a part of my life ever since I was a little girl. At the age of eight my mom was diagnosed with Leukemia. Leukemia is a type of cancer where the body makes too many white blood cells. She was admitted into UCLA hospital and fought a long hard battle for a year. The cancer was too strong and took her life. I know my mom is in a better place now and that she doesn’t have to struggle any more. Finally, I know that she is okay. After losing my mom I hoped that my family and I would never have to go through anything like that again. If only I knew then that it was just the beginning of a long rough journey ahead:

The year is 2011. It is my last year of middle school and I just couldn’t wait to be in high school. Everything was going great! I had good grades and worked hard on all of my athletic teams. My goal was to make it on the varsity softball team by sophomore year. I had a lot of competition, but pretty soon that was going to be the least of my worries.

Around January I found a lump around my groin area. It didn’t hurt or anything so I just didn’t think too much about it – I just sort of forgot about it. Busy with my regular life of sports and school, I forgot about it up until May. One night when Lisa (my step mom) and I were at home, I had just taken a shower and was then going to go to bed. After I got out of the shower, I noticed my bump was even bigger. I told my step-mom about it and showed her. She was shocked at how big it was and that I hadn’t told anyone about it. At first look she thought it was a hernia from playing sports, but as she examined it, she could tell it was something much more than that.

Later that week, we went to the doctors where they completed many tests. They discovered that the bump was a swollen lymph node; and I had to have surgery to biopsy it.  Once they biopsied it they found that it had swelled because it was filled with cancerous cells. That’s when I found out that I had cancer. The cancer I had was Leukemia. The news was devastating. It was even more frightening knowing that my mom had passed from it. I couldn’t believe that my family and I would have to go through a tragic event like this again.

At first I felt as if my life had been destroyed. I couldn’t see my friends or play sports. I couldn’t be a normal teenager. At that time high school was just a dream that may never come true. I slowly got more and more sick and I watched my long beautiful hair fall out. It was mortifying. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and I shaved my head. I couldn’t believe it, but I was bald. For a while I was embarrassed to go out in public. I couldn’t handle all the people staring and giving me weird looks. I didn’t even feel comfortable when I was with my closest friends and even some family. It got even worse when the medicine I was taking made me eat like crazy. I was gaining weight and my athletic body slowly changed into what looked like a pregnant lady. I continuously thought to myself, what I did to deserve this? I blamed myself and thought I did something wrong. Then – at the same time – I knew that I had to be strong – not only for myself, but for others. I knew that my strength and hope would help not only me get through this, but it would help my family get through it as well. As my battle continued, things became more comprehensible. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but I still felt like it was.

Thankfully I have the type of leukemia that has a very high cure rate and response to treatment; I went into remission about six weeks after I started chemotherapy. Although the cancer was gone, my battle wasn’t even close to being over. I have to continue chemotherapy for two more years and I won’t be considered “cured” until three years of being in remission. Through my many visits to the treatment center I have met many new friends that have also overcome a life threatening disease. The treatment center I attend has a very positive atmosphere. Even though the children there are very sick, they always have a smile on their face. The staff is very encouraging and always has a positive attitude. After spending so much time with them, you don’t think of them as your nurse or doctor, you think of them as your friend, a friend that has been with you from the very beginning and has seen you at your best and at your worst. Since the beginning of my journey the treatment center has had a positive influence on my outcome.

Throughout my journey I was very lucky. I had many people who cared for me. Not only was it just friends and family, but people that were complete strangers. Until now I never realized how generous people can be. Many strangers and foundations have donated to my family money for medical expenses and they haven’t even met me. Over the years I have realized that this scary, life-threatening experience has only made me a stronger person. I have learned so much and have gone through much more than any other fifteen-year-old I know. This disease tried to kill me, but it only made me stronger.

Teen Essay Series: Dear Cancer, It’s Me

This is the fifth in a series featuring the finalists in our inaugural Teen Essay Contest. Ryanne Bamieh’s essay won 3rd place in the Family and Friends Category.

essayRyanne Bamieh PhotoRyanne Bamieh is a junior at La Reina High School. Ryanne is a member of the mock trial, speech and debate, and varsity soccer teams. Her favorite class is English and she enjoys watching movies and hiking.  

Dear Cancer, it’s me,

I’m not sure if you remember me, it’s been a while. But I know I will never forget you. We first became acquainted when my sister got sick. It started seemingly benign enough, but escalated rapidly. When the doctors first used the word cancer that’s when I knew, even at 7 years old, that the situation was serious. Cancer’s not only a scary name, but a downright terrifying one.

I’d like to say I know your modus operandi pretty well. Remy, my sister, was only 4 at the time of her diagnosis, but that didn’t stop you. No easy ways out, no shortcuts, no mercy. I sometimes get angry at myself because I can’t remember the details of Remy’s sickness. I remember seeing her at the local hospital – looking normal. The next thing I remember is seeing her infrequently at the hospital in Los Angeles. I remember my mom staying with my sister, and I’m ashamed to admit that I became angry that I couldn’t see my parents at a time when I wanted them. Then came the desperation, the hopelessness, the first time my parents told me that Remy wasn’t going to make it.

Being in third grade, I was idealistic, irrational, and unfailingly optimistic. I was certain that you, cancer, would make an exception in Remy’s case. She was only 4 after all. Plus, she was healthy, energetic, and young – all qualities that others told me were indications of success, of triumph. Imagine my surprise when my sister left the hospital and came home, the first realization for my eight-year-old self that my parents recognized that her health had reached such a state that hospitalization was futile.

Remy passed away on January 21, 2005. It was a Friday. My parents told me when I was walking to recess. Her funeral, burial, ceremony all happened so quickly that I don’t have any concrete memories. Yet, I distinctly remember requesting to go back to school. I was determined that my life would be, from then on, normal.

But you, cancer, you have ensured that my life has been anything but normal. I went through the motions – school, soccer, girl scouts – but I also went through some more unique experiences, therapy, grief groups, cemetery visits. I became, essentially, an only child and experienced envy of those who had siblings. I was especially resentful of those who complained about their siblings – how dare they be anything but grateful for such a gift, a gift that could be ripped away at any time. Then, came the guilt I experienced as memories of my sister faded away. I could go through whole days without thinking much of her, a realization that made me worry. Thoughts and memories were the only remaining connection I had with Remy, and once those started to become less and less frequent, I began to obsess over any event that I could label a “sign” of her presence – any ladybug, rainbow, or freak occurrence was immediately linked in my mind with my sister.

My sister’s death has also brought a host of uncomfortable situations. When meeting people, do I list Remy as one of my siblings? It’s come to the point where I usually don’t, mostly because I hate answering the long list of questions that follow, especially since such questions almost certainly lead to me breaking down. Plus, there’s that tricky decision of when to tell those who become good friends about Remy. If I don’t disclose when first meeting them, then should I tell them when they come to my house for the first time, or is that too late?

In 2006, my mom became pregnant. I was ecstatic. I was sure that having another sibling would return my life to normal. I could defeat you, cancer, by coming up with another sister to take her place. A couple months later, I was again informed by my parents, this time in my school’s parking lot, that my sibling had died – a miscarriage they called it. Again I was reminded that humans are only as strong as their health, a concept that, though it seemed simplistic, was harsh and unforgiving. I was told all throughout my childhood that anything was possible, but now, for a second time, I faced the reality; modern medicine still couldn’t combat you or other medical realities.

My mom became pregnant again in 2007. This time, I went from extreme caution to extreme excitement. My sibling’s due date was Remy’s birthday – February 2. Again, obsessing over what the significance of this “sign” meant, I concluded that the universe must be sending me a sibling to fix what you had done earlier. My new sibling would be able to fulfill, if not replace, the spot that Remy had occupied previously in my life. Sam, my wonderful but crazy brother, was born on February 10. Both Sam’s birth date, and the fact that he was a boy, not a sister as I had originally thought, were subtle reminders from the universe to me that Sam wasn’t a replacement for Remy, but, like Remy, a unique individual in his own right.

So cancer, I wrote this letter to let you know that I still am thinking of you. I don’t think I can ever forgive you for what you’ve done to me, to my family, to my sister. I don’t think I can ever understand why you chose to take Remy. I don’t think I will able to accept that you are a part of life. Yes, cancer, I will not be satisfied with you until you are completely eradicated, powerless, gone.

-Ryanne Bamieh

Volunteer Profile: Laurie De Jesus

lauriedejesus3For Laurie De Jesus and her mother Sandy Miller, giving back is a family affair. Like so many others, Laurie and Sandy have had their lives permanently altered by cancer. The disease that took her father when Laurie was 17, and later took Sandy’s best friend, is not strong enough to dampen their altruistic spirit and energetic drive to help the participants of the Cancer Support Community.

When Laurie moved to California in 1996 with her husband Alberto and their two children, she knew she wanted to volunteer in the community. When her mother’s best friend, Gloria Moorman, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Gloria started participating at CSCVVSB and would tell Laurie and her mother how much she loved it.

“The highlight of every day for her was going to the Cancer Support Community,” says Laurie. “She talked to me so much about it that my mother and I decided we wanted to help them.” Gloria brought Laurie to the Westlake location to introduce her and show her around. “It was so warm and cozy,” says Laurie.

Shortly after visiting, Laurie and Sandy started helping CSCVVSB with its outreach effort, distributing brochures to doctor’s offices in the San Fernando Valley. “I would go with my mom, and we’d go out for lunch and just make a fun day out of it,” says Laurie.

Laurie also volunteered as a front-desk receptionist, and since 2009 has been an instrumental part of the annual Gala, one of CSCVVSB’s largest fundraisers. She has served as committee chair twice, and for the last two years has chaired the celebrity and entertainment committees. Sandy has also made a difference through her volunteer work as front desk receptionist and serving as a docent at the Holiday Homes Tour.

“Laurie is a tremendous asset to the Cancer Support Community,” says CSCVVSB President Suzanne Drace. “She brings a combination of experience, talent, energy and generosity that has made an incredible impact on our ability to support people affected by cancer. We love that volunteering gives Laurie and Sandy a way to spend time together while making a difference.”

As Group Coordinator for Conejo Valley real estate team The McLaughlin Group, Laurie wanted to use her real estate experience to help CSCVVSB in a new way. In May of 2013 the group decided they would donate 20% of their sales commission to CSCVVSB for any real estate transaction where the client requests it.

“The really exciting thing about this initiative is that it allows people to give back without having to write a check,” says Laurie. “People who would be buying a home anyway can now use that purchase to make a significant charitable contribution, and nothing additional is coming out of their pocket.”

For more information, please contact The McLaughlin Group at (818) 610-9995 or www.themclaughlingroup.com

Teen Essay Series: Dear Cancer, It’s Me, Amanda

This is the fourth in a series featuring the finalists in our Inaugural Teen Essay Contest. Amanda Jackson’s essay won 2nd place in the Personal category.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmanda Jackson is in 11th grade at Buena High School in Ventura.  Her favorite part of her school day is the Transitional Partnership Program at Ventura County Medical Center.  This program gives special education students job skills training and experience.  After school she enjoys walking her golden retriever Rusty, talking on the phone, and listening to music. 

Dear Cancer, It’s Me, Amanda.

We’ve known each other for a long time, but now it’s time for me to tell you my story:

During the last ten years, I have had six rounds of chemotherapy, three major abdominal surgeries, four rounds of radiation, a bone marrow transplant, and antibody therapy. My first chemotherapy started on Tuesday, January 7th, 2003. It was a disgusting red color, but I knew it would have a chance to make me better.  I was stuck in the hospital for over 200 nights the first year, and my mom and I were in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles alone while my dad and three sisters stayed home in Ventura.  When I was first in the hospital I was scared. There were new things coming into my life, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.  Since I was only 9, it was scary for me to be in the hospital.  All the effects of the treatment made me sick and weak, my hair fell out, and I hated the whole idea, but I didn’t want anyone to worry about it.  My mom had to quit her job teaching to stay with me through the whole journey. When family came, that was the hardest because I didn’t have the energy for family.  Whenever I went home, I always had to be on medicine and IV fluids so I couldn’t walk around because I would fall down. Because of my treatments, I had lots of infections and blood clots. When I was in and out of the hospital, I missed a lot of school activities, and I couldn’t run or move around at all.  Last, I was always away at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles feeling sadness and loneliness.

But you know what, cancer?  You were trying to hurt me, but you did good things in my life, too. You made my wonderful sister Emily want to be a pediatric oncology nurse to help other children with cancer, and she loves her work at Children’s Hospital Orange County.  Back in 2007, my two other sisters, Megan and Melissa, and I started going to Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, where cancer patients and their siblings can be regular kids for one week.  It is a wonderful camp for a time to talk about what you’ve gone through, and now I go every year.  Before I had cancer I was afraid of dogs, but when I was in the hospital I got to meet therapy dogs who I liked. Now I love dogs, and I even have a golden retriever of my own. When I was battling cancer, I didn’t have much time for activities, but now I am appreciating school and going to church because I know what it’s like to miss out.  During our family’s entire struggle, we became a more loving family and now we are closer than ever before.  Last, I have a love for life and I always enjoy every day.

Cancer, you’ve been with me half my life, and you really hurt me in a lot of ways. But while you were hurting me, you were helping me too. You’ve been in my body so long that you made me brave and strong; and now, I’m not afraid of you anymore.

Sincerely,

Amanda

PS: Please, and I mean please, don’t come back!

Women United in Celebration

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Hosted annually by CSCVVSB’s Latino Outreach Program, Mujeres Unidas en Celebracion (Women United in Celebration), was held on April 27 in Northridge and May 18 in Oxnard. These conferences honored and helped Latina cancer survivors and their loved ones.

April 27 – Porter Valley Country Club, Northridge

The San Fernando Valley event featured an educational seminar by CSCVVSB Medical Advisory Board Member Bernard Lewinsky, MD, FACR. Actress and author Katy Franco shared her breast cancer survival experience and gave each attendee a copy of her book, Chemorella.

Complimentary wigs and breast prosthesis along with fittings were offered by Intimate Image and St. Michael’s Church in Sherman Oaks.

Click here to view our Facebook photo album from this inspirational event!

May 18 – the Kitchen, Oxnard

The Ventura County event featured Alicia Zaragoza, RN, NP, an Oncology Nurse Navigator. She presented information on how Oncology Nurse Navigators can help and sought ideas from the audience on how to improve the medical experience from the patient’s perspective.

“Laugh Yoga” instructor Rose Luna also addressed the group and got everyone out of their seats and laughing as she explained the benefits of humor and yoga in healing.

At one point the participants got a chance to stand up and share their stories. Every phase of survivorship was represented – from one week to 25 years!

“From the beginning to the very end everything was excellent,” said one participant.

Thanks to the Kitchen (featured on Celebrity Chef Guy Fieri’s show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives) for providing the location for Mujeres Unidas 2013! Thanks also to our donors: Green Thumb Nurseries, Intimate Image, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Special thanks to our generous sponsors: Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and St. John’s Hospital.

For contributing to the success of both the Northridge and Oxnard events, we would like to thank St. Michael’s Church, Amgen Oncology, Genentech, and Kaiser Permanente.