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Scholar Quote: By using my own experience as a survivor and advocate, I hope to make a positive impact and bring hope to those who are fighting this disease.

This is my story about my lifelong battle with cancer and how it has shaped my perspective and goals.

 “Ten!” I exclaimed. The agony was so intense that I could barely speak. My level of pain was a ten out of ten despite 400 milligrams of ibuprofen and ten milligrams of oxycodone pumping through the IV tubes which had become, so it seemed, part of my body. The sight of my pediatric oncologist sent a shiver down my spine. Dr. Michael Ortiz was a kind man, but through my twelve-year old eyes, he was the Grim Reaper.

In the seventh grade I was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma and had my right kidney removed. My hospital room in New York City’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center was scary, but not unfamiliar; I had already spent much of my life there. As a toddler, I battled fourth stage neuroblastoma, an illness that was expected, with ninety-five percent certainty, to kill me. According to my doctors, the two distinct cancers with which I was diagnosed are so rare that it is akin to being struck by lightning. Twice.

The physical pain was unbearable, but my thoughts were more harmful than the tumors. Will I need more chemotherapy? Will I ever be able to play sports or go back to school? Are these my final days? If I do manage to survive, will I ever be the same? Will I ever have a life that is normal? Not until years after my most recent surgery did I find the courage to face myself in the mirror and look at my scars.

Cancer didn’t just take my kidney and parts of other organs. It didn’t just give me scars spanning the entirety of my body. It didn’t just take years from my childhood. Cancer took my laugh. It took my smile.

My greatest adversary wasn’t a local bully, nor was it my schizophrenic father who abandoned my family when I was young and never paid me a visit. No, not even cancer itself is worthy of that title. My greatest adversary was me: my mindset and my perspective.

I am proud that I have gone head to head against this foe and that I have come out victorious. Not only have I rediscovered my smile, but I have developed the ability to mitigate the pain I feel by focusing on my academic pursuits. Equally important, this experience has made me realize my life’s purpose: to help others, especially those struggling with medical or mental illness. Through personal training and working with disadvantaged youth at a local school’s enrichment program, I have begun to experience the fulfillment that helping others provides.

Frequent visits to a place I once called home, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, are still a part of my life, but the ninth-floor pediatric unit is no longer a place of pain and hopeless prognoses; it’s a place of learning, growth, and perspective. Nothing has taught me more about life than having been at death’s door day after day, unsure if it would open.

Now, if the oncologist asks me about my pain level, my response depends on the day. My experiences have taught me that pain of the body need not translate into pain of the mind. My survival is a miracle and a blessing. I now have the opportunity to channel my tears into sweat and use my experience as fuel to change the world. Tragedy in life is inevitable, but letting it define you is a choice. My life may never be normal, but it will be one that is eminently extraordinary.

My goal now is to give back to others who are facing similar challenges, especially children battling pediatric cancer. I aspire to start a cancer foundation that supports research, raises awareness, and provides resources for families with children undergoing treatment. By using my own experience as a survivor and advocate, I hope to make a positive impact and bring hope to those who are fighting this disease. I am grateful for the opportunity to turn my pain into purpose and to be a part of something bigger than myself.