A Warrior’s Journey
by Lacey White-Stahura
As I lay motionless on the muddy field, I heard my coach shouting, “Lace, are you okay? Come out and take a breather!” All I could think to myself was “Don’t give up, keep fighting.” Every breath I took was excruciating. It felt like someone had dropped a boulder on my rib cage, but I was not going to stop fighting. With ten minutes left in the second half, determining the first
place team, I sat there as the goalie dedicated to my team and to myself. I looked over my shoulder only to see a herd of parents standing at the sideline. My mom and coach repeatedly beckoned me to the bench. I slowly stood on my feet with the help of my team, and without any hesitation, walked straight back to the goal. Parents stared at me from both sides, and from the sideline I heard my team proudly say, “Our goalie dominates”. I stood at the edge of my box, fearless. That game was mine to win and I was not going to allow anything to bring me down. The referee looked at me with anticipation. I nodded and yelled to my team, “Let’s go girls!” The whistle blew and it was time.
Following the win of our game and the excruciating pain, I sat at Urgent Care waiting impatiently for my X-ray results. My mind was on replay and the image of my opponent’s knee inside my ribcage was agonizing. I wanted to retaliate, but soon that would be replaced with gratitude as I began to learn that it was the miracle that saved my life. I glanced up as my doctor walked back into the room, examining my X-rays. “You’re one tough cookie,” he said. I looked at my mother beside me and I noticed her worried face. The doctor looked up at the both of us and with concern in his voice said, “There is something else going on here.” We were sent straight to the emergency room and from there went through, what it seems like endless PT scans, X-rays, and MRI’s. The day was long and treacherous. I felt uneasy about the situation. At last, the E.R. Doctor came in the room only to give us news we were hoping not to hear. “We found a mass the size of a softball inside your liver. You’ll need to hold off on soccer for a while until we figure this out.” My stomach dropped and I couldn’t believe what I just heard. My worst fear had come true.
From there, I had numerous doctor’s appointments and occasional MRI’s. This disease living inside me was taking over my life. I was on the fastrack for Liver Resection surgery. One early morning, my parents and I drove to UCLA to have yet another appointment with my doctor. He walked in the room and greeted us warmly, “Good morning and good news!” He sat beside me trying to comfort me as he explained my surgical procedure to get rid of the beast once and for all. I sat quietly, hiding my fear as he took my parents and I through every step of our long journey ahead. To sum up the doctor’s visit, he reminded us that my surgery would be in late November and I would be admitted to the hospital for about three to five days. Little did we know that was not the case.
The morning of November 20th, 2016, I reluctantly left the house to go finish this battle once and for all. It seemed all so surreal, and I was nervous beyond belief. I faintly remember sitting in the hospital bed waiting to be wheeled down to the surgery room. “How are you, sweetheart?” The blonde nurse chirped. All the nurses made sure I was completely comfortable before anything occurred. They drew my blood, and eventually started injecting me with anesthesia. “Tell me when you feel it, honey” the nurse chimed. I remembered nothing of the surgery. From the bright lights being the last memory and my family being the first, the surgery was almost as if it never happened. Hours later, I found myself barely mobile in a hospital bed located in the Peds ICU. My whole family was surrounding me and I felt only love. My sister-in-law cradled 2 month old baby Kora in her arms and carried her my way. I looked past those two only to see my nephew, Jameson, with a shocked, scared look on his face. I put my hand out and he walked over to grasp it. The scariest part was not being able to remember everything. My family was my safe haven. Everyday became a routine of nurses checking up on me and urging me to get up and walk, continual encouraging me to stay hydrated and eat. I vividly remember the cold, sterile needles being injected into my skin multiple times a day. Nothing was easy, and one of the few experiences I looked forward to was holding my step-father and brothers’ hands as I began my daily walks. The walk down the hall felt like an unknown concept, but grasping the hands of those who love me gave me strength. All I could think was, “This is just the beginning.”
“Every story has an end. But in life, every ending is just a new beginning.” After the surgery, I was slowly recovering, but it was much more difficult than any of us had anticipated. One afternoon, I heard chattering in the hallway as I peeked out of the crack in the door. Soon, the door swung open and my hepatologist, parents, and big brothers all flowed into the room. Dr. Venick sat at the foot of the bed looking at me sympathetically and gently told me, “You have liver cancer.” I was in a state of shock. His words were like a tidal wave crashing down on my life. The word, “cancer” was now engraved in my mind, and I was silent. I breathed deeply. Regardless of what I kept telling myself I could only think “Why me?” The beginning of this journey was a tough one, but I as I gained strength in this cancer experience, “Instead of saying ‘Why me…’ I said ‘Try me’. I took the opportunity to not only learn from that experience, but allow it to refine who I have become. People seem to look at cancer as a death sentence, but I now believe that it is an opportunity. As I laid weak, unable to breathe or move in my hospital bed, all I could think was, “Don’t give up, keep fighting.” Today, here I am, with a renewed mind, body, and soul. I fought and I won. You never really understand how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have. I have an inspirational story of courage to tell for the rest of my life. I had cancer for three years, and never knew. Yet, I still dominated on a competitive soccer team, worked thoroughly, and thrived. Now, I see the world in a whole new perspective and I believe everything happens for a reason. As I say goodbye to cancer and hello to chemo once again, I am standing strong. I am so thankful to be here living day by day and I am a warrior.
As I grew up, I believed life was so perfect, and “cancer” wasn’t in my future path, or so I thought. The “C” word caused this blockage of fear within me, but soon enough I had realized that the bigger “C” word is courage. Courage is being able to look your fear in the eye and still allow yourself to see the silver lining. After you decide you will not let fear control you, anxiety subsides. I realized that I was so much more than my illness and I used my courage as motivation to keep moving forward as much as I wanted to retreat. “God gives his toughest fights to his strongest warriors.” I tell myself this daily because someone knows I can fight and this is how I fought cancer twice. I often think to myself “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Then, I remind myself that we were given this life because we are strong enough to live it. Any hardship is just a bump, and to continue to move on you simply have to push forward and be strong. Strength does not come from what you can do, it comes from overcoming the things you once thought you could not. Sometimes we stand afraid and vulnerable wondering why we are so “unlucky.” What are we missing? We’re missing that touch of self-love. More times often than not, we look in the mirror and point out every flaw we carry. This has a negative effect on how the rest of our day unfolds. Rather than pointing out the flaws and imperfections, otherwise known as the negatives, take into heart the positives such as beauty and youth. You are as beautiful as you want to be. There is no single look to define beauty. Beauty presents itself in every human being. For instance, my scar has a certain depth and true meaning which I never understood until I realized it sets me apart from everyone else. The rhythm of life is one that beats to its own tune. On a day to day basis, life blesses us with unexpected gifts. November 20th, 2015 and February 15th, 2017 were the days that life gave me my gift. These days are days to remember, although the days following are ones I’d rather forget. I can still feel the tremendous amount of pain as if it was happening in this very moment. Every time I think of the pain I’d felt or the nausea that tagged along, chills run down my spine. A stiff, foreign hospital bed and a childhood blanket were the closest items I had to call home for weeks. I am not fond of the memories of my hospital stay, but it is the eye opening journey that followed that I am eternally grateful for. Never in a million years would I have come in contact with the thought, “I have cancer.” The fact that I beat cancer twice has taught me strength, love and gratitude. In all honesty, there were times that fear and anxiety had taken control, but I held my ground and chose that I would overcome dark moments with courage. I stand here today, my journey never not crossing my mind, and thank this beautiful world for all it has to offer. Cancer took me out, but I managed to come out on top both times with a stronger head and heart each time. I celebrate life’s monumental moments and the path that lies ahead.
Marilyn Monroe once said, “I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go. Things go wrong so that you can appreciate them when they’re right. You believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself. And sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” Today, I have scars that show my courage and an attitude that portrays my utmost beauty and strength. An anonymous individual once said, “She is beauty behind those scars, she is gorgeous chaos under all that mess, she is everything that you can’t see because her beauty lies deep within.” I am different. I am unique. I am a warrior and I can conquer this world. Life is short and people take many things for granted, so I say fight on and make life worth living.
Lacey White-Stahura was the 2017 winner of the Cancer Support Community Valley/Ventura/Santa Barbara Dear Cancer it’s Me High School Essay Awards in the Personal Category.