The Lord of the Rings: My Survival Guide to Cancer

I was 17 when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was a shy high school student with knee pain and my first B. I thought I was too young and insignificant to get cancer and too powerless to fight it. I had never thought of myself as a brave person. Through The Lord of the Rings I learned that the most unlikely of people are capable of surprising us all. The protagonist Frodo is an ordinary Hobbit who finds the fate of the world lying on his shoulders quite unexpectedly. Like him I found myself forced to embark on a daunting journey.

In the first of the three movies, Frodo is given the ring by his uncle, Bilbo, and instructed by the sage wizard, Gandalf, to carry it to Rivendell where it will be properly dealt with. Frodo rejects the proposal at first, but then accepts it as he realizes the responsibility has landed on him and he must follow through for the good of mankind.

When I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma I had difficulty coming to terms with the fact I had cancer and that I might lose my right leg. I woke up after my biopsy, dizzy and tired, to a firm hand on my shoulder, a furrowed brow, and a devastating diagnosis. Like Frodo, my fate was handed to me and I had no say in the matter. Whenever I felt that I had no control over my situation, I would think of the scene in the Mines of Moria where Frodo turns to Gandalf, solemnly saying, "I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had ever happened." Gandalf wisely responds, "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." I had cancer and there was nothing I could do about it, what I could control was what I did during that time and how I handled my situation.

After arriving in Rivendell, the council concludes only Frodo has the capability to carry the ring to Mordor where it will be destroyed. Frodo does not know the way to Mordor and is ill equipped to fend for himself, so a group of volunteers form offering him "my sword" and "my axe" to protect and guide him. They become the nine members of the fellowship of the ring, all supporting Frodo on his difficult quest.

After my diagnosis, I felt my own fellowship form. My parents came together to do their best to protect me; they protected me from germs, infections, depression, and loneliness. My best friend and sister provided levity in a dark time much like Merry and Pippin. I met another cancer survivor who proved to be a great guide on my journey, showing me the path to recovery. My doctors, nurses, and physical therapists worked to fight my cancer, much like the members of the fellowship fought of the all-consuming evil armies of Sauron and Saruman. I had the advantage of technology, so my armies could consult with specialists all over the world.

Despite the support of the fellowship, there came a time in Frodo's journey where he realizes the ring is corrupting those around him and that he must complete the journey on his own. I had a similar realization. Despite the support around me I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I would be the one who had to endure the surgeries, the chemo, the blood infusions, the infections, the hair loss, the nausea, the hospitals, and the constant sickness. My parents tried to fight my battle for me, but finally I saw that only I could go through the experience. I did not want to corrupt the happiness and normalcy of the people around me by relying to heavily on them. There's nothing worse than having a kid with cancer. I, like Frodo, saw that the journey I had to embark on was not the easiest to make, but it was inevitable. We carried heavy burdens, but they were our own to carry.

As those of you who have read the book or seen the movie know, Sam follows Frodo as he is sneaking away and the two decide to take off together. Frodo smiles and hugs Sam, thankful that his journey does not have to be completed alone. In the final film, Frodo and Sam are making their way to cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom. I can't help but be reminded of the quote that Sam says when Frodo is so weary can't make it up the mountain, "I can't carry it for you, Mr. Frodo, but I can carry you". Sam continues to piggyback Frodo the rest of the way.

Although many people in my life had their moments as my Sam, providing unyielding loyal support, my mother especially embodies this quote. I got sick with several infections all at once that hurt so bad I was rushed to the emergency room and put on morphine. I laid there, staring at the ceiling while they tried to figure out what was wrong. I was in so much pain that I just wanted to let it all go when I noticed my mom rushing around the room, yelling at the doctor on the phone, and patting my head with a wet washcloth. She was not carrying my cancer, she could not destroy it for me, but she was doing everything in her power to help me get rid of it. Like Frodo needed Sam, I needed someone to carry me through the darkest times when I was incapable of fighting for myself.

When Frodo returns from his journey after destroying the ring, he is changed. He has scars from a Nazgul blade that haunt him and he looks at the world differently. He decides to set off with Gandalf and Bilbo to the Grey Havens leaving behind his friends, even Sam. My own journey back to normal life after I beat cancer, twice, reminds me of Frodo's. I, like Frodo, have the scars of my journey, down the center of my chest and along my right knee and thigh. Re-entering the normal world away from the IVs and from being the constant center of concern is a surreal experience; I don't feel like I can quite fit back in the way I used to. Now I have moved on to another part of my life as at college student, away from my home where the people who supported me are, and it's scary. However, Frodo's knowing smile as he waves goodbye to his friends comforts me and provides me with hope that this too, is part of the journey. This journey, though, is not one of survival, but one of self-discovery and the formation of an identity beyond my illness.

My friends gifted me a signed script of "The Return of the King", the final film, when I was diagnosed and this became like my Bible. I found new courage in the pages every time I looked through it. To me, the script embodied what it meant to be on a journey that makes you appreciate everything you are capable of. The most unlikely of candidates can prove to be braver then you ever thought possible; whether it's a shy young high school student or a curly haired Hobbit, we are all capable of surprising feats.

What book or movie would tell your story?

Lucile Packard Hospital is part of the Virtual Pediatric Network, leveraging Cisco Telepresence, bringing together Cancer Centers of Excellence to help patients like Nina.