On a family vacation in Mexico, at the age of 13, I began to experience a severe pain in my back. Due to being an athlete, I was used to the strains and sprains often experienced with the excessive activity. My parents made an appointment with a sports massage therapist to help alleviate the pain. However, when the therapist began to work on the localized area, the pain was intensified.
I was then referred to a specialist who looked at me for a total of five minutes, said it was muscle spasms, and sent me to physical therapy.
I attended weeks of physical therapy, but the pain continued to increase. At this point, the physical therapist expressed that he believed I was faking it and the same belief was expressed by family friends. My mom knew something was not right. We continued to see multiple doctors, physical therapists, and multiple tests were run with no answers. Finally, we saw a doctor that couldn’t accept that there wasn’t an answer to my pain. After discussing my case with colleagues around the country, a CT scan of my abdomen was ordered.
The morning of my scan I remember feeling physically exhausted and emotionally drained from the disbelief of friends and the multiple tests without answers. After the scan, my dad and I went out to lunch. That was when my dad received a phone call from my mom. I will never forget the words that came from my dad while on the phone, “It will be okay. They aren’t 100 percent sure that’s what it is.” The rest of lunch, my dad was quiet and wouldn’t tell me what the phone call was about.
That evening, my parents sat me down to tell me the CT scan found a cyst on my pancreas and we were going to the hospital to see another doctor. At 13, I remember feeling relief that there was a chance they could fix this and I would be pain free. When we arrived at the hospital, it was explained to me and my family that I had a cyst the size of a golf ball and we were going to schedule surgery to remove it.
The day of the surgery arrived, still without the thought of this cyst being cancer, and I was taken into the operating room for a quick surgery. However, this wasn’t a quick surgery. When the surgeons got to my pancreas, they realized the golf ball-sized cyst was actually a grapefruit-sized tumor. Waking up from surgery on the oncology floor with every tube imaginable hooked up to me was not the post-op experience I was expecting. I was then told the horrifying truth: my cyst was malignant. I had an incision across my stomach, and we weren’t quite sure when I was going home. My oncologist explained to my mother that this cancer was very rare, so rare that the hospital had never seen it until the day before, when a 15 year old came in with the exact same thing. At the time, only a little over 100 cases had ever been documented in the United States.
After some time in the hospital, I was eventually released with half a pancreas, a drain, and a large, painful incision, but most of all, a completely new outlook on life. While beginning the two hour drive back home, driving under the construction of the new shuttle being built, my mom stated, “We cannot ask God why me? We may never know the answer, but there is a reason.”
For the four years after, I created my own organization bringing personalized teddy bears to the patients on the hospital’s oncology floor with the motivation of bringing comfort and hope to each child and teen going through this devastating experience. On Thursday, July 25th of this year, I will be celebrating 10 years of being cancer free. The scar that will permanently be across my abdomen is a constant reminder of just how precious life can be and to always appreciate every day I wake up healthy. It’s not a reminder of the pain or battle, but a reminder of hope, strength, and determination.