“I am not a survivor just because the cancer is no longer visible on computer images; I am a survivor because these twenty-one marks remind me that I have a purpose in life.”
Twenty-one is more than just a number. For my friends it represents adulthood: the age they will graduate from college and legally have a drink. From my perspective, twenty-one represents survivorship, determination and hope. Although mostly concealed beneath clothing, twenty-one scars have altered my body and mind and given me a new direction for the future.
As an eleven year-old, I was working toward achieving two dreams: competing in the Olympics and becoming an Air Force fighter pilot. I started tumbling classes before I was a year old and competed on a trampoline and tumbling team. It was exhilarating to fly through the air while twisting, finally landing solidly on two feet. I attribute my goal of becoming a fighter pilot to my dad. He attended the Air Force Academy, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Both of my ambitions came crashing down six years ago when I was diagnosed with truncal synovial sarcoma. Scars #1, #2, #3, #4, and #5 were caused by the surgeries that removed the cancer, along with a large section of muscle, from my lower back. For the first time in my life, limits were placed on my athletic ability.
I was determined not to allow the cancer to rob me of my love of tumbling. I spent hours in therapy and at the gym training other muscles to compensate. What a great day it was when I again performed four back handsprings in a row! I no longer had the precision that competitive tumbling required, but I joined a co-ed cheer team and also became an instructor. I coached a special needs cheer team, and it was incredible to discover that the special needs athletes loved tumbling as much as I did.
My future goals began to reflect my new experiences. I grounded the dream of becoming a pilot and traded it for my ascending ambition, to put an end to the disease that affects millions. I started researching and competing in science fairs. Instead of continuing to take regular classes, I was accepted into the Kenton County Academics of Innovation and Technology (KCAIT) as a biomedical sciences scholar. As an Emperor Science Award winner, I was mentored by researchers in two cancer labs and began understanding the challenges and rewards of research. I currently intern five days a week in the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Blood and Bone Marrow Research Department. My mental strength balances out any physical weakness I experience.
When I rub my hands over scars #6 through #20, my stomach still clutches with disappointment. After cancer, the impact force caused by landing twisting fulls and standing tucks became too much for my knees. I experienced multiple dislocations, which led to two medial patellofemoral ligament reconstructions and a tibial osteotomy, putting an end to my tumbling. Not all scars cause me to grieve, though. I smile with amusement every time I look in the mirror and see scar #21 on the bridge of my nose. I earned the gash during an outlandish experiment breathing underwater with a PVC pipe. This scar reminds me that life goes on, and I will continue to goof off and laugh with friends. Everyone has scars that change their bodies and minds. I wear my scars with pride because I persevered through a crisis, and the scars led me down a new path. I am not a survivor just because the cancer is no longer visible on computer images; I am a survivor because these twenty-one marks remind me that I have a purpose in life. I have compassion for other patients, and I offer insight to the mental and physical trials that they face. I want to be a pediatric oncologist and researcher so I can help others when they are fighting for their lives and coming to terms with their own wounds. I understand the impact of scars, and I know that someday I will be able to look a frightened child in the eye and say, “I’ve been there too. We’ve got this. You’re going to be okay.”
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