Andre Sobel Essay Winner: Cancer Isn't a Battle you Fight by Yourself

I am just a mother, and as such, I don't know much more than other mothers do. However, there is a part of me that experienced a loss so savage that is thankfully only the plight of a few. Losing a child gives you a membership in a sorority; this experience for most "breaks the shell of understanding."

If we are open to survival, we are guided in glimpses to the next chapter of our lives and at times we "channel" some really good ideas. Creating the Andre Sobel essay contest was just such a revelation, and our final essay presented here by Joseph Tong validates my concept. He speaks of the very catharsis I hoped for and appreciates being invited to revisit the past. He speaks of procrastination in writing, but once having gathered his thoughts and courage, he relates to us an evening of great closeness with his family. His effort pays off in a currency that I could only wish for. I tread gently on the sacred ground of the pain of others, maintaining that I am an expert only on mine. However, I am humbled and gratified when others are better off because I have been where they are. Their journeys give meaning to my experience. Thank you, Joseph.

"I had cancer, but cancer never had me"

Pain, a simple four letter word that conveys so much. Lying in the backseat of our family's only car, I feebly fight to remain conscious. The pain is unbearable. The speedometer is over 100, dad needs to slow down. We'll crash. The pain, where's it coming from? Why so much pain? The trees whip by our window. We're going to crash. Pain. Searing, lancing pain. Dad's going too fast, mom always told him to slow down. I open my mouth to tell him, but I can't form words, only a scream. Too much pain. Please stop... I'm gonna die. No, dad's here, I'll be okay... then darkness.


As they wheel me down the hospital corridors, I look up and see a masked face. He catches my eye, sees me looking, and quickly hands me a rubber ducky. It preoccupies me for a few seconds but the exhilaration of being pushed down the hallway is irresistible. It's like my own car! As I round the last corner, I see my mom crying. Why is she crying? "Mom, don't cry... I have my rubber ducky," I say, desperately trying to comfort my mother of her mysterious grief. I give it a squeeze, attempting with futility to stop her tears. "... I have my rubber ducky," I reiterate. But the masked men don't stop; they whisk me through the looming, double doors as I frantically twist myself around as far as those stupid tubes will allow. I give my rubber ducky one more feeble squeeze before the big doors swing shut. I'm not sure if she heard, I really hope she did. But wait, I don't want a mask. What are you doing? No, stop -- what's that smell? ... bubble gum. And then, darkness--


"Hey, look... it's the kid with no hair." I cringe; I know there's more coming.

"Look at him! He's bald!" I hear a laugh. "Man, he looks like an alien." Another laugh. "Hey baldie, still wearing your baseball cap?" I don't respond, staring at the cold, glaring cafeteria wall. I have no hair. I pray, with every fiber of my being, that maybe just this once, they aren't talking to me. But I know... no matter how far down I pull the brim of my hat, no matter how hard I stare at those unforgiving walls, I have no hair.

"HEY! Baldy, I'm talkin' to you." Out of the corner of my eye, I see my second-grade friends awkwardly shy away from me, unwilling to recognize the blatant bullying, none brave enough to save me -- but what can I expect? I have no hair... I turn around and place my Thomas the Choo Choo Train lunchbox that I received at the hospital onto the lunch table, desperately constructing any type of barrier to protect me from the inevitable. But even Thomas the Engine can't stand up for me. I have no hair. Why? Why do I have no hair?

That night, I fell asleep crying in my mom's arms, and then, darkness.


Writing this essay has been hard. When I sat down to tell my story, it was difficult to begin. The process of remembering, recalling, and reliving the past was a bumpy road I'd rarely traveled, a road I rarely wanted to travel. At first, I was unwilling. I pushed off this essay over and over again, constantly making up excuses for myself. I told myself I'd get down to it, I'd travel that beaten path and I would finish telling my story. But I seemed to always find something else to do: homework, soccer practice, a ski trip, a party...

Then, five days before the deadline, my mom had had enough. She had read my first few feeble drafts and told me, "You have so much more to tell. I know your story can't be told in 1000 words, but you have to try. For others who might be going through what you've gone through, you have to try." I desperately tried to tell her that I didn't remember, I couldn't remember, I didn't want to remember. I was diagnosed at a young age and my memories were spotty, consisting of bits and pieces of my battle. And so that night after dinner, a decade after my diagnosis, my family sat down. Together, my parents and I finally overcame our emotional occlusion, our physical inability to look back and remember. Like me, they were never willing to relive the past, never strong enough to reopen the chapter of our lives that had always remained locked and closed.

That night, my story was finally revealed. My dad -- always emotionally strong, always mentally stoic -- visibly fought back tears. My mom had to pause several times in order to continue, unable to suppress her emotions. I felt tears in my eyes. We were an emotional wreck, but the catharsis of my childhood tragedy had finally occurred. More than a decade later, a simple prompt that asked me for "things I've needed to tell" had served as the key to unlock a dusty, neglected chapter of our lives, had brought light to my darkness. That night, more than a decade later, cancer still did not fail to change my perception of the world: I realized that family, often taken for granted, is life's most cherished gift.

And so the next day, I sit here, not to tell you about my story, but about my family's story. Cancer isn't a battle you fight by yourself, a war you wage in seclusion. Cancer isn't an illness you face in solitude. Look around, you're not alone in fighting this daunting demon -- you have your family, your friends, your relatives. My story isn't about my pain, my tears; it's about my family's. And so I pass my family's story down, and I tell you that it's your turn: hold the hands of your loved ones, take each step together, face each day as one, forge the next chapter of your lives, and united you shall stand.

Joseph attends Richard Montgomery High School in Maryland and enjoys playing competitive soccer on his school's varsity soccer team that is ranked number 10 in his state. He is a student in the International Baccalaureate program, and homework is a constant in his life. Joseph is an avid skier and snowboarder throughout winter and makes trips to local ski resorts weekly during the peak of ski season. He has drawn and played piano nearly all of his life and even tried his hand at oil painting for a couple of years. Many of his paintings are hanging in his house as decoration. Joseph likes to believe that he lives by the saying, "I had cancer, but cancer never had me." He hopes all cancer survivors will keep that thought in mind no matter the circumstances.