“She has masses of unknown origin, honey,” my mom told me one night at dinner in fourth grade. Considering my mom works in the intensive care unit as a physician, death was, and still is, a common dinner table conversation, but this discussion was different. At the ripe age of eight, I knew what cancer was, as several uncles and my grandpa had both experienced prostate cancers, and a friend’s mom had breast cancer, but I’d never been confronted with the idea of someone I loved standing no chance against something growing inside of themselves. Harper was one of my first adult friends, and she lived next door to my grandma, one street away from my own house. She was tremendously funny, genuine, and kind, and treated me as someone deserving of the respect of an adult. Considering Harper’s cancer was already terminal at the time it was diagnosed, it was almost miraculous that she survived almost eighteen months more, and died at home in a very dignified way. Still, I’d never cried so hard in my life when I found out. It was the first funeral I’d ever been to and by far the best one. Harper’s sense of humor lasted until the end, and as such she wrote herself an enormously self-deprecating, hilarious eulogy. At the end of the service, her partner gave me a letter from Harper, explaining how even though she had died because of it, cancer had not beaten her. In fact, it had given her a new zest for life and gratitude she’d never had before. I still have that letter above my desk at home, and it continues to inspire me to be a more grateful, considerate person each day because, in the end, nobody knows how long they have on this earth.
In short, I'm going to ride my bike to Alaska for Harper. She was the first loss I experienced from cancer, but unfortunately, there were more to follow. One of my closest friends was diagnosed with Hodgkin's just after they graduated high school, and luckily they are now in remission, but their six months battling cancer made their mental health deteriorate, and their physical appearance change nearly beyond recognition. It was heartbreaking to watch and almost as difficult to support them. My best friend’s mom, who ran an Olympic trials qualifying time for the marathon and was easily the healthiest person I’ve ever met, who never smoked or drank, succumbed to small cell lung cancer in November of last year. Most heartbreaking to me is the fact that these are only a few of my stories, and they are even more personal to those around me.
Cancer does not discriminate. It is, by and large, the most obnoxious and pervasive evil that has affected my life. For many years, I felt powerless to fight it. I raised money for St. Jude’s and the oncology department of our local hospital, and that felt like the extent of my contribution to fighting cancer. That changed my sophomore year of high school when I had to visit a pediatric hematology office and I saw a girl named Lily who was there for chemotherapy. She couldn’t have been three, her face swollen with steroids, and was clearly engrossed with playing with the plastic blocks in the lobby, blissfully unaware of her own sickness. When she went back for her appointment, the toys were sterilized and put back for the next sick kid. After about five minutes, Lily came back out in the arms of a nurse, who explained to her parents that her counts were again too low for chemo that day. The look on her parents’ faces made my heart flip in my chest and brought tears to my eyes, and made me decide to fight systemic diseases such as cancer. When college applications rolled around, and I had to decide on a major to apply to at UT, I ultimately chose biomedical engineering because I thought that degree would allow me to make an impact on people’s health, whether that be through helping them defeat their cancer, creating a better prosthetic, or designing better diagnostic imaging.
Participating in the Texas 4000 will be a privilege, and it will allow me to continue taking advantage of the opportunities I am provided to fight for the wellbeing of society and to honor the legacy of my friends and loved ones that have been directly affected by cancer. Cancer is indeed an insidious foe, but projects like the Texas 4000 allow us to make incremental strides against it, and to realize how lucky we are to even have healthy bodies, let alone be able to bike to Alaska, study in college, or spend time with our family and friends. This project is a monumental one, but I think it will be the catalyst for an incredible self-transformation, and an opportunity for me to raise awareness and funds for a battle that is going to be won one stride (or pedal) at a time, and will ultimately benefit all people, regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, or race.