A Cancer Free World

October 20, 2016

The harsh Las Vegas summer sun radiated onto the black crumbs of turf, making the field feel like a giant burning oven. The dry heat was inescapable, relentlessly sucking all remaining energy and hope from my teammates. I shielded my eyes from the blinding glare as I watched my team get scored on goal after goal by the Utah state champions. Unable to even kick a ball, I was rendered useless to my team. All I could do was sit and ice the torn ligament in my ankle. An overwhelming sense of powerlessness and frustration welled up inside of me. I felt utterly useless, helplessly watching my team fight a losing battle. Watching my mom battle a brain tumor feels exactly like that.
My mom was diagnosed eighteen years ago, before I was even born. The tumor is located in the brainstem, meaning surgery would be an extremely difficult, if not impossible task. The tumor affects the left side of her brain, which means the right side of her body does not function as it should. I have never seen her run, or even walk without a severe limp. I have seen her body give out from under her, causing her to fall countless times. Some falls are minor, some are terrifying. In the moments after her falls, she takes time to recuperate mentally and physically. In those times I feel completely helpless. Unable to understand the pain she experiences, I am forced to sit and watch as she struggles alone.
My mom has reached the point where she is too weak to even open her fingers to grab something. But what she lacks in physical strength, she more than makes up for, mentally and spiritually. I have witnessed how even in the darkest of situations, she continues to find the strength to laugh and make others around her smile.
My mom has played an immense role in how I have developed into who I am today, and the values I hold most important. When I see my mom’s refusal to let her tumor get the better of her, I see firsthand what strength and perseverance looks like. The way she has battled her brain tumor has inspired me to live with the same determination she shows every day. She has taught me how to love people wholeheartedly and unconditionally, to see the best in every situation, and most importantly, to never give up. Through this difficult journey, my sense of family importance has also been magnified, and I realize how privileged I am to have a strong and positive family behind me. My determination to achieve my goals is one of the most important values I have learned from my mom. She has taught me to never give up on things I believe in, no matter what obstacles may be in my way, and to always strive for the best. These values could not have been so powerfully and permanently instilled in me, had I not experienced this.
Whether she is endlessly nagging me to become a doctor, or giving me tips on how to improve in soccer, my mom always pushes me to put forth my best self. Her disability has proved to be a difficult road to travel, but it has helped me become the resilient, determined, driven person that I am today. My life is better with my mom in it, cheering me on in everything I do. She is a constant reminder of all the things I can accomplish, thanks to the strength she has displayed everyday for the last seventeen years of my life.
This is the essay I used to apply to colleges. Because of the word limit, I was only able to scratch the surface of my experience with my mom’s cancer. Now I have the opportunity to delve a little deeper and actually share my thoughts and emotions.
I’ve never talked to anyone about how growing up with my mom’s disability has affected me, so I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it independently. I’m not sure what my life would look like without my mom’s tumor. Sometimes I think about all the things my family could do if she was healthy. We could go on hikes or take long walks around the neighborhood. We could go to the airport without seeing the tired look on my mom’s face every time she has to get out of her wheelchair to walk through the metal detector. We could walk up the five steps to another floor without having to search every corner for a elevator. Without the tumor, my mom wouldn’t have to wake up with a pounding headache every morning. Without the tumor, I wouldn’t have to wake up from horrific dreams where my subconscious imagines my mom dying.
I dream of a world where my mom is just like any other mom. But the thing is, I wouldn’t want to live in that world. It’s a weird thing, crediting cancer with how your life has turned out for the better. There is no doubt that cancer sucks, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. But my mom’s tumor has somehow worked its way into the relationships of my family and strengthened them. A world without my mom’s tumor is a world deprived of the way my family and I have grown, both individually and collectively. Without her tumor, I don’t think I would know how to love my mom in the way that I do now, or love my dad so much for sticking by her side all these years.
Often times I sit down next to my mom and massage her. I start with her fingers, which have a tendency to curl in, and I stretch them out, extending them as far as possible. Then I work on finger strength, telling her to squeeze my hand as hard as possible. Next I move to her arm. Normally she can’t lift her arm past chin level because her shoulder just won’t allow it, and her muscles aren’t strong enough to lift it. I stretch her arm out, and reach it as high up as possible. Finally I move to her feet. Her toes curl under her, which makes it very easy to trip and fall. I try to stretch them out and make them as straight as possible. Just a few months ago, I was able to lift my mom’s arm vertically into the air. My mom and I were both amazed, remembering how high her arm could go before. These little victories in my mom’s mobility are inexplicable. For me to be able to help her in such a huge way is beyond gratifying. My mom can now lift her arm up vertically on her own, and her grip strength is slightly improving. Working on my mom’s failing body has inspired me to explore the field of medicine. My experience with her has sparked an interest in physical therapy. Being able to help others in the same way I can help my mom seems like an incredibly gratifying profession.
Cancer has had a complex presence in my life from the day I was born. I don’t know a life without it. Do I wish my mom had never gotten cancer? Well, yes and no. Yes, because if given the chance, I would never want my mom to ever have to experience this pain again. But without cancer, I don’t know what my family would look like. My dad has told me that before her tumor, my mom didn’t laugh as much, and that she didn’t have as great a sense of humor, and wasn’t as goofy. My mom as I know her today, is all those things. She’s the funniest, strongest, happiest person I know. I would never trade my mom, as the person she is today, for anything.
Cancer sucks. For everyone that has ever been affected by it. But I admire my mom because of her ability to turn her cancer into something more positive, and not give into the many negatives. I love my family for not letting cancer be a reason to not enjoy life everyday. Yes, there are hard days, incredibly hard days. But the good days with my mom more than make up for those hard days.
Elizabeth Han