Essay Contest Finalists: Personal Category
Thanks to all the high school students who shared their personal stories in the “Dear Cancer, It’s Me” essay contest. We truly appreciate the effort, courage, and time that each of you took to participate in this event.
Living with Leukemia, by Camille Elizabeth Vigna
“You have cancer” is the last thing you want to hear from your doctor, I received that unexpected news in February 2012. Having cancer has impacted me tremendously in more ways than I could ever imagine. To begin, my entire social life and physical state have been changed completely. Similar to how before Christ and after Christ is used as a landmark in time, now with my family it is before cancer or after cancer. Leukemia has pulled out every possible emotion from me. Lastly I have gained so much knowledge through this whole experience. My life has been altered forever because I got this disease they call Leukemia.
My social life turned upside down as soon as I was diagnosed. In seventh grade I was succeeding in all honors classes, a co-publicity director and I fit in with everyone else. When the news got out about my illness I received an overwhelming supply of get well cards and presents from people I knew well as well as people I had never even met. I began feeling left out. I hated the question “how are you doing” I just wanted to be treated how
I was before all of it happened. Not being in school for half of seventh grade, most of eighth grade, almost all of ninth and none of tenth so far has made me feel isolated. People always say, “I am here if you need someone to talk to.” I rarely took people up on those offers because I felt they had no idea what I was going through. I’ve also had to miss out on adventures where there are many germs, because I wasn’t feeling well enough or I was stuck at the hospital. For example, I was planning on celebrating my sixteenth birthday party with a tea party but unexpectedly had to cancel because I had a fever which is a sign of infection for low immunity patients like me. One day I’m feeling fine and the next I’m in the emergency room with a high blood pressure. I can never make concrete plans since my health can change from hour to hour. I have spent over two-hundred nights at five different hospitals. Some of those days included holidays; two Fourth of July’s, two Halloweens and one Thanksgiving. Cancer has a tremendous effect on the family as well. This disease has made me become a lot closer to my father and my step-mother, on the other hand it has provide some gaps between me and my siblings. I have had the opportunity to meet some amazing people. As soon as my teacher, at the time, heard about me she drove to the hospital and missed teaching the rest of the day. Now she is not my teacher but we have stayed extremely close, whether it’s going out for a treat or just someone to talk to, I know she is always there. I have also met some incredible nurses and health practitioners. Cancer has definitely affected my social life.
From having an athletic body who danced seven hours a week to being in an unmovable state in ICU my body has experienced so much. As soon as I started getting chemotherapy the changes were very visible. I started losing my hair which was hard but I found some great wigs so I wouldn’t feel so self conscience. My face became super puffy and ugly from a steroid I was on and I was hungry all the time. The hardest thing I have gone through is getting an infection call E coli. I was in ICU for seventeen days and the overall stay at the hospital was seventy-two days. I was so close to dying so many nights but I don’t recall being scared because I was all doped up on drugs. Then when they weaned me too fast off a narcotic I had crazy withdrawal symptoms where I could not control my mind’s thoughts. Luckily the hospital I was at had a rehabilitation facility where it took a huge amount of effort to regain some of my strength back, work on my speech therapy and return to normal daily activities. I had to start from the beginning with learning to walk again and even hold a pencil. I haven’t had chemotherapy in a year and a half since it didn’t work with me. That doesn’t mean I haven’t stopped having
side effects. Leukemia’s side effects are just as rough; joint pains, fevers and tiredness. I get out of breath easily, I can’t run and I am not strong. I miss dance but have accepted that this is how it is. I find joy in other activities I can do like painting and piano. Some days I feel great and go out with a friend or out to dinner, but other days I feel like I can’t even get off the couch and getting up to go to the bathroom is tiring. I can no longer count the number of infections I have had, which means a hospital stay, feeling horrible and scary situations. I never knew how great the toll the disease would have on my body, but I am grateful it keeps functioning.
I have been on an emotional roller coaster for the past three years that Leukemia has been a part of my life. I have felt alone, fearful, frustrated, sadness, confusion and relief. Jealousy takes over my mind when I am watching my thirteen year old sister live the life I thought I would be living. Taking yoga classes where senior citizens are more flexible and stronger than me is very discouraging and spending most of my time with adults has made me feel out of place. Cancer has not allowed me to have a normal teenage life, leaving me feeling that I am missing out on so many opportunities. I try to keep a positive outlook on life, but some days my circumstances have made that impossible. At times I believe I will never get better. I have been told that I am not going to live for more than three months by many doctors. Imagine how scary it would be to have someone give you your death sentence. It has been two years since the first time I heard that and it inspires me that I am defying what the doctors think. I have felt such extreme emotions; deeper than I thought was possible.
This disease has taught me a tremendous amount of knowledge. When I was getting the standard Western medicine treatment I learned about blood and medicines, but I started learning so much more when we stopped traditional treatment due to the chemotherapy failing to put me in remission and I started trying to heal naturally. I have been to over forty health practitioners and doctors such as naturopaths, dietitians, a hypnotist, acupuncturists, integrative doctors and tried many other different healing methods. Anything that had worked for anyone else in a similar situation my dad and I wanted to try. I have learned so much about how your diet affects you. I have gone through many different diets that practitioners recommend; the most intense was being a vegan, gluten free and sugar free. Currently, I am not too strict on what I put in my mouth but
I try hard to eat clean, meaning no preservatives, as little gluten as possible and no artificial sugar. After I have seen how what you can eat can help or hurt you in so many ways I have considered a career as a dietician so I can help others live a healthy life. An important lesson that I have been forced to learn through this process is to live in the present. In my opinion everyone should live by this philosophy because in reality no one really knows when our lives will be taken away from us. I have been closer to death than most, but unexpected deaths can happen too. I think we should all learn to appreciate every moment and be grateful for what we have. I gained a lot of wisdom and a new outlook on life because I have had this disease.
Leukemia has affected every aspect of my life. It has altered my relationships with friends and family in both good and bad ways. This disease has beaten me to the ground, but the important thing is getting back up. I have learned so much about myself and not giving up, which is especially hard due to the fact that I have been dealing with this for three out of the sixteen years of my life. I just have to live my life one day at a time, and for now, continue to live and love my life with Leukemia.
Camille Elizabeth Vigna, 16, passed away March 21, 2015 at her home in Thousand Oaks, California after three years of living with leukemia. Camille was born in Laguna Niguel, California on January 28, 1999 to Lia and Eric Vigna. The third of four children, she attended Mates Elementary School and Colina Middle School in Thousand Oaks, where she was an honors student. Camille was involved in student government, chorus and theater. Camille was enrolled at Westlake High School where she attended classes via independent study for the majority of her freshman and sophomore years.
Camille’s extraordinary love of life touched everyone she met and was uniquely expressed through her creativity and generous nature. Camille wanted to do and experience everything! Dancing, cooking, scrapbooking, playing the piano, yoga and oil-painting were some of her favorite activities. Camille loved playing board games with her family and enjoyed the challenge of crossword puzzles and word games. Camille ended each day by writing in her journal and reading the “Daily Word.” She had tremendous faith in God and was grateful for every day.
Camille impacted many people as they witnessed and supported her during her three-year struggle with cancer. Her fortitude and bravery inspired everyone around her as she took ownership of her health and healing process. She survived over a year and half longer than expected by using natural methods of mind, body and spiritual healing. Camille never allowed this disease to rob her of her kind, giving and graceful spirit.
Camille was welcomed into heaven by her mother, Lia Sargent Vigna, who passed away in 2007. She is survived by her father Eric Vigna, her step-mother Debby Reid Vigna, sisters Olivia and Elise, brother John, step-brother Reid Levin, grandparents Beverly & Fred Sargent of Scottsdale, Arizona and Dolores & Anthony Vigna of Santa Barbara, California. Camille is cherished by 7 aunts, 7 uncles and 18 cousins who all loved her deeply. She has countless friends, teachers and loved ones who also will miss her terribly.
We can all honor Camille by taking the time to appreciate the beauty and wonder of creation as she did.
Dear Cancer, It’s Me, by Seamus Morrison
Dear Cancer, It’s Me
It’s me, the boy whose dreams you shattered, whose innocence you soiled, and body you stomped on. I have something to say about that.
I’ve been torn apart and put back together again. Patched together with pain, and stitched up with sorrow. The stiches serve as painful reminders that you have taken what is rightfully mine. You ripped it out and walked away without regret. You pretended nothing had happened, but we both knew it had.
You’ve been gone a long time but I still think of you. I cannot forget you. I’m reminded of you when I stumble and fall because you compromised my balance, when I look in the mirror and see my eyes drifting in different directions, when I can’t remember to close the front door behind me or what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time because you messed with my memory too. I can’t forget that you took the friends I made in the hospital, my aunt, my grandmother then made me wonder why you didn’t take me instead. Why was I the lucky one? When my right hand struggles to strike at the piano keys, there you are, mocking me, just like you used to when you would sit at the edge of my hospital bed with that wicked smile on your face. I was mute at the time – a small price to pay to get the tumor out of my head – and couldn’t cry out for help. I was scared of you. I imagined you as a shadowy figure with a hat, a plaid fedora with a feather in it, fashioned at the perfect angle. Brain surgery does strange things to a person’s mind. For a while, that hat was the only thing that mattered. I could not resist thinking how good it would look on me.
If we’d never met, I would have been more charismatic – you took away my personality. I remember being quicker, funnier. People liked me and it was easier to talk to them before you came along. I would’ve had more hair without you and more friends, too.
I want to take all my anger out on you, but rage won’t resolve anything. I have decided to make an agreement with you instead, or really an agreement with myself to make peace with you. From now on, I will start to look for the good things about our relationship, like how you introduced me to golf when I could no longer play baseball. Thank you for buying me extra time on math tests. Because of you I have a strong bond with my family that makes me feel loved and safe. I’ve learned that they will stay with me even through the darkest moments. You’ve taught me not to take little things for granted like the warmth of my cat sleeping at my feet or the taste of strawberries in mid-July. Maybe now that we have made peace, you can tell me where you got that hat.
Seamus Morrison is a sophomore at the Oak Grove School in Ojai. At the age of ten he had to learn to walk and talk again after brain surgery to remove a malignant tumor called Medulloblastoma. He underwent radiation, a year and a half of chemo and intensive physical therapy.
Seamus is a sea creature enthusiast and aspires to protect the ocean. On weekends, you can find him talking to guests about the animals at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum Sea Center and this summer will be his second year volunteering at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in their Teen Conservation Leader Program. He is passionate about ocean conservation, has organized beach cleanups and is on a mission to educate people about ways to reduce our use of plastic. Seamus is a pretty good pianist and enjoys composing classical music, especially during math class. His poem ‘I Loved It” won first place in the 2013 Ventura County Writers Club Poetry Contest. He loves Joseph Campbell, Chopin, Beethoven, John Steinbeck, nudibranchs, cetaceans and his cat Danny Boy.
Aftershock, by Elida Anne Bryan
Dear cancer it’s me, the Elida Anne Bryan edition. My life was hard enough and now another complication on my plate, as a twelve year old this seemed impossible, I was supposed to be invincible, what happened? Dev- astation. Sacrifice. Battle. Loss. Hate. Fear. Shock. Denial. All these emotions boiling up in my mind, and the feeling that I was going to explode did not seem to help at all. My life as I knew it… over from that very moment. Driving to the hospital October 1st with my mom and dad trying to hold back the tears and calm me down because I cried so much it was enough for the three of us. It seemed to all make sense, all the headaches, weight-loss, bottle after bottle of water, and complications playing soccer. How could I have been so oblivious, then again I am not an oncologist, how could I have known? I know I should have been thinking what will happen to me? Will I make it out alive? I was so scared and the excruciating pain seemed to seize these thoughts, but somehow I knew that I would make it out and it would all be just fine. How was I, a twelve year old with a brain tumor, supposed to cope with this? All I kept asking was why me? What did I do to deserve this? I am a good person I am yet to understand what I did so terrible to end up with this fate? What does anyone do to end up with cancer?
The next step for me was decisions. Who can I trust my life with to perform my surgery? It was between Dr. Krieger at CHLA and Dr. Bergsneider at UCLA. I knew from the first meeting that Dr. Bergsneider was the correct choice. Coming back to school before my surgery was hard but comforting, I never wanted to leave. Support from friends and teachers were exactly what the doctor had ordered. My teacher, Mrs. Banks threw me a surprise good luck party and invited all my friends. I felt so lucky to have so much support. Then on Sunday October 28, 2012 (the day before my surgery), my soccer team threw me a pizza party at Shakeys. Soccer was my life it was all I wanted, all I had, my heart broke knowing I would never go back to playing like before. That night my dad slept on the floor outside of my room. I cried the whole night both from fear and pain. At that time I was in so much pain I finally made peace with the thought knowing I could not last any longer in this pain. Finally, October 29, 2012, 3 a.m. time to wake up and go to the hospital. Waiting for the surgery to finally begin seemed endless as I was drowning in anxiety, fear, and pain. Finally, the last thing I remembered was being pushed away from my parents, the last touch of their hands and their faces watching me being rushed into the room gave me some comfort.
The next thing I knew, I was awake, and I made it! I quickly noticed my black eye shut all the way closed. I was bummed being stuck in the hospital, but I was kept occupied, receiving visits from a therapy dog (Ike), painting, watching TV, walking, and more. I thought that I was going to have no Halloween, 2012. Surprisingly, they had costumes for patients, I was Tinker Bell. All the patients walked around, collected candy and games, watched a magic show, and saw dressed up dogs. I walked with my Mom and Grandma. It cheered me up so much and exceeded my expectations, it was so much fun. Surprisingly, I was able to walk most of the time at Halloween. I was on a road to recovery! The day my head wrap was cut off I was so upset seeing a shaved head, and a huge scar. However, before I knew it, a week and a half later, I was home! My dogs, Bobby and Goldie greeted me happily, but gently knowing something was wrong.
Spring Break 2012 was spent at Houston Texas, MD Anderson Cancer Center. Of course a second opinion from one of the best cancer centers was a good idea. Luckily it wasn’t all cancer and doctors, my dad and I had fun sight seeing and going to the beach, etc.
Summer 2012, my Make a Wish trip! My parents and I went to Orlando Florida. We visited Discovery Cove, SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Disney World. It was the best time of my life. From swimming with dolphins, stingrays, rides, Disneyland plus 5000, and a SeaWorld water park, this gave me the light, which guided me through hard times.
High school. 9th grade, my dad’s lymphoma came back. At this time I could not deal with cancer any longer but I still hung on to the hope I had left. We all stayed strong and the radiation killed off the lymphoma tumor. 10th grade, I started taking growth hormone shots (sounds great doesn’t it?). Since my pituitary gland doesn’t work anymore I had to make up some inches lost, which caused rapid growth. Joint pain, rapid growth, and swollen joints left me unable to play soccer again. It seemed as though my soccer dream was slipping away through the cracks of my fingers. Just when I was back at it another problem jumps out at me. Today, February 2, 2015 the day my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. I don’t understand how one person can be struck three times, each completely devastating. My dad, my mom, and I all three people in my family struck with a form of cancer. How can this only be happening to my family and I? I guess three times a charm? I don’t know how much more I can take and I’m pretty sure all hope I had left was shattered to pieces, but I guess that’s the power of cancer, because it can’t just be satisfied with striking once, it comes back for a stronger aftershock.
The future is in my hands. I see myself battling cancer with my family. I see myself supporting my mom through her dark times as she did with mine. I see myself getting back at soccer. Finally, I see myself coming back stronger than before and I will not lose sight of my hope.
So dear cancer, if you took a walk in my shoes I can assure you that you wouldn’t stay long, and I can also say that you would never have the courage to face the everlasting battle that I have been faced with.
My name is Elida Anne Bryan. I was born in Los Angeles on a beautiful fall day, October 15,1999. The earth was so excited with my birth that Southern California moved, shook, and earth quaked! I attend Van Nuys Medical Magnet High School, attend Med-Cor at USC, receive great grades, and play soccer and volleyball. At home my mom and dad have helped me cope and navigate my life. My dogs Bobby and Goldie are the best and simply the most caring dogs in the world.
I have dealt with cancer since I was born. My dad has been battling his lymphoma cancer for 19 years now. I was diagnosed with a craniopharyngioma brain tumor at onl12 years old. October 29, 2012 was my surgery date. February 9, 2015, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. As you can see, my whole family and I have had to overcome not only our own cancer, but also each others. I have grown, learned, and prospered since then. I am more compassionate, loving, and no longer take life for granted.