She’s a Survivor

National Cancer Survivor Day is coming up on June 5th! Congratulations to all the survivors out there!
In our community, we know each cancer story is unique. However, we understand each others’ disbelief, fear, love in our families, and joy when “good news” comes along in our journey. Today, a cancer survivor takes the stage and shares her experience. Karen is mentor at Walk With Sally, and this is her encounter with cancer when she was 17.
Before I was diagnosed with cancer, I never knew anyone with cancer. I always thought only old people and unfortunate little babies [had cancer]. I don’t think anyone in my family knew anyone with cancer.
People around me were telling me to sit down and I was laughing and thinking they were overreacting. It was the first time I had ever had an MRI. I didn’t even know what it was. After the MRI, a doctor pulled my dad into the room. I saw the MRI on the negative. It was a huge picture of my brain and I saw a white circle the size of a softball right in the middle of it. I remember thinking, “is that a tumor?” But not freaking out.
I caught bits and pieces of the conversation and I figured out it was a brain tumor. I didn’t really react like someone who finds out she has a brain tumor. I just sat there thinking I’m going to be in the hospital for the first time. I don’t know if I was excited or what, but I was okay with it. More adults [were] speaking and my dad said let’s go.
My dad had taken off early from work so he was in his suit and his tie was flying behind him as he power walked over to the Children’s Hospital.
Why did they make us come over here?!
They put in a PICC line and the nurse came in dressed in this extremely protective gear thick gloves, blue plastic gown, mask. That’s when I first broke down and realized that this was more serious than I thought.
I was weak so I didn’t really want to do anything. My dad would order my lunches and dinners for me and my mom would prepare my favorite fruits and snacks to bring from home. My dad would spend the night at the hospital every night I was there. He would sleep in the chair next to me. I remember the first day of chemo, he sat in the chair, drew the curtain so the light from the hallway wouldn’t bother me, but poked his head through and said, “if you need anything, I’m here.” I would wake up in the middle of the night starving and I would poke my dad and say daddy I’m hungry. He would get up and find some fruit and sit there and feed me until I was done and fall back asleep. I would probably wake up 2-3 times a night and he would sit there and feed me.
The first days of school, teachers who I never had or talked to would come up to me and tell me about their cancer stories. I didn’t realize that cancer had affected so many people that I knew. A lot of people told me that my hair would change texture and/or color and I was excited to see what would happen.
There was one girl who came up to me and asked how I found out about the tumor. My friend who also wanted to know, but was scared to ask me because I might be sensitive to it, would jump in and be like I want to know too! After I finished chemo, that same girl asked if she could touch my fuzz, so I lifted up my hat and she touched the fuzz. I was actually ok with not having hair.
In March, I had to stand in front of the school and receive recognition and I took my hat off for the first time and went to school. I walked into the senior class living room and everyone in the room started clapping.
I had to go back every 3 months to get scanned and then I went to college. I went to Berkeley for one semester then came back got a scan then transferred to Cornell and came back every winter and summer to get scanned. Then I turned 21 and my health insurance expired and I couldn’t get health insurance anymore. So I stopped getting scanned after 3 years. Thankfully, nothing came back, but every time I had a headache for a few days in a row, I would get scared.
[My dad] didn’t want anything around that reminded him of my hospital stay. He threw away all my prescription pills, he refused to take pictures of me with my bald head, and he even refused to send the pictures of my sister and I in Santa Barbara the week before I was diagnosed to his parents in Korea. He had asked my mom to choose some pictures to send and I chose the SB ones and he got visibly upset and said that he didn’t want those pictures.  I always thought that it was harder on my parents to see me go through chemo than it was for me to actually go through chemo. But they kept me going by keeping my normal schedule and not babying me. Even when I was pitying myself and saying I don’t want to be strong anymore, my dad was like you don’t have to be strong, I’ll be strong for you.
I am now a financial professional with Prudential and help people prepare for their financial future. One of the ways I do that is through life insurance. My dad passed away from a heart attack without life insurance and it threw our lives into chaos for a long time. As soon as I got into this industry, I got my mom and sister life insurance. I couldn’t get life insurance because of my pre-existing condition. This year, it was my 10-year anniversary and I was able to apply for life insurance. They required an APS (attending physician statement) and my oncologist, who is the foremost expert on germinoma tumors, wrote in his letter “in my opinion, she is cured of this cancer.” He didn’t say in remission, or anything like that. He said “cured.” So today 11 years from diagnosis, I consider myself cured of cancer.

Congratulations on this incredible victory! We are so thankful and fortunate to have Karen as a mentor. She is able to help her mentee Monse in ways that nobody else can because of her experience with cancer. We are so privileged to have this community where we lift each other up. Thank you Karen for being an irreplaceable part of it!

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