Brave young Chicago area teens poured their words onto paper in the 4th annual "It's Always Something" Teen Essay competition.
Some of them had battled cancer themselves and some had watched someone they love battle this deadly disease.
Their journeys told with the purpose of helping others like themselves, to raise awareness for Gilda's Club Chicago and to earn prizes for their schools and a possibility of a scholarship for their future education.
The following are the winning words of a young lady growing up while her mother fought metastatic breast cancer:
When your Mom is diagnosed with Stage IIIB triple negative breast cancer and you’re only 6 years old it’s always going to be something even if you don’t understand yet what that something is. The year was 2004 and my Mom was just 31 and I was a spunky kindergartner at Otter Creek Elementary School. I remember laying my head down and snuggling my Mom in what we called “baby turtle” and I remember feeling “it”. “It” she told me in her sweet Mommy voice was her “owie”. She told me not to worry “It” would go away very soon. The “owie” would go away with surgery but “it” would never really go away. “It” would always be something and that something would change our lives forever.
My first sign that there would always be something was when the visitors stopped and all the flowers and gifts stop coming after my mommy had her “owie” removed. She was going to the doctor a lot and told me she had to take “bad medicine”. That “bad medicine” was chemotherapy. When Mommy had her second bad medicine I was in a talent competition in Kenosha, WI. Dad drove but we stopped so many times because Mom was sick. That weekend in the fancy hotel I remember waking up and her pillow was covered with her beautiful blonde hair. I also remember seeing her cry in the hotel bathroom as she put that same beautiful blonde hair in a ponytail and chopped it off with scissors. I did so well at the competition, I took home the grand prize but I knew we left something in that hotel room. We left our old life.
I remember thinking other Mommy’s and Daddy’s hair didn’t fall out, at least not in huge clumps. Other Mommy’s didn’t take scissors to their hair and cry and cry in a hotel room after their daughter just won a talent competition. She told me it was falling out because of the “bad medicine”. I didn’t like taking medicine either so I wanted to make her feel better. I wanted her to be pretty again and to stop crying so I gave her my favorite Power Puff Girls hat. The Power Puff Girls were my favorite and they had super powers and I remember thinking my Mom could use some super powers to get better. The hat was my favorite but I wanted her to be happy again. The hat did have super powers. She wore it every day, everywhere, and didn’t care when people stared or asked her if she was alright. She started smiling again for the first time since she told me about her “owie”. It was that moment when I figured out I was helping my Mom fight her “owie”. She was fighting for me and we were fighting together. The little thing I did gave her super powers to get better.
My Mommy smiled again but I still knew our lives were different. My Mommy was always full of energy. She ran a daycare with 10 kids under the age of 5 for Pete’s sake. She played ball, sang songs, did crafts, swam, and ran with us at the park. Now she was too tired to even push us on the swings and my Aunt Cheryl was always coming from far away to help. She seemed paralyzed. I wondered why it took so long for this “bad medicine” to work. Did this happen to other Mommy’s and Daddy’s? Would I ever have my old Mommy back? I didn't know the answer then but eventually I would figure out the answer to that question was NO because it would always be something.
As time went on I kept hearing that my Mom had cancer. I didn't know what that was but as a talkative 7 year old I ran around school and told everyone that my Mom had cancer. The principal immediately called my Mom and I remember her having a chat with me that day. She told me that cancer was the name of her “owie” and that I scared people when I went around talking about how sick she was, how she threw up after getting “bad medicine” and how my Mommy was bald like some Daddies were. She told me that I was not in trouble but I should probably not talk about it at school anymore. But someone at school that day told me my Mommy was dying. It was after that I knew it would always be something. It was after that, that I grew up very fast.
I was about to be handed many adult situations and I would have to learn to cope with the fact that my Mommy was slowly dying. I never cried though. I knew if I cried then my Mommy would cry. I also knew she tried very hard not to cry no matter how bad her “owie” was. I knew I had to be strong because she was. If I broke so would she, I was all that she had. I made her smile and she still wore my Power Puff Girl hat every day so it was giving her super powers not to die.
I went from being 6 to feeling like I was 24 and feeling like it was always something. The doorbell was an awful something. Yes, the doorbell. For most, the doorbell meant someone was visiting, asking me to play, or maybe even bringing me a present. Not to me. Eventually the doorbell meant something completely different. For me the doorbell meant that there was a package for my Mommy. It rang a lot. Inside were little yellow and white striped individual boxes with polar bears on them. I never knew what these boxes were but I knew it always meant Mommy was headed for the bathroom with them. One day I was so curious I quietly crept into my Mom’s bathroom that is in her bedroom and peaked through the cracked door. She didn't know I was there. I stood frozen in fear watching something I will never forget. It was my Mommy with tears in her eyes standing in the mirror as she took a huge needle out of the box and stuck herself in her tummy. She was giving herself “bad medicine”. She was making herself sick. It was all so confusing. After those packages came my Mommy was always sick in bed for days, sleeping most of the time but back to work on Monday. Why would she do that? I later learned those shots saved my Mommy’s life every week and even if they made her sick for a day or two they kept her here for all the other days. Those shots also gave my Mommy super powers.
In 2007 I learned my Mommy’s “owie” had spread and she was having trouble breathing. My Mommy had gotten a lot stronger and was more like my old Mommy but things were still different. I wasn't like other boys and girls and my life was definitely different. For one we used to laugh that my Mommy only had one “boobie”. I knew most Mommy’s had two. I asked her if I would have two or only one. She used to tell me I would have two. She would say “remember my boobie had an “owie” so the doctor had to take it away”.
My Mommy’s hair grew back slowly after she stopped throwing up and going for the “bad medicine”. It grew back black with a white stripe down the front. My new Mommy looked like Pepe Le Pew from the Looney Tunes cartoons that I watched. The Power Puff hat sat in the drawer now and my “new” Mommy had short black hair, one boobie, still had that metal thing in her body where the bad medicine went, but she didn't die like the kid at school told me and she didn't die like some of her friends who also got the bad medicine.
As I grew I came to understand that my Mommy had cancer. She told me it still lived inside of her but she fought it every day. I remember having to tell her in 2009 that one of her best friends who had cancer was with God now. I knew she would be so heart broken. When I was younger and I heard someone passed away who had cancer and the “bad medicine” I used to think there was a chart or a line with all those people’s names on it. Every time someone died I thought my Mommy moved up the list and that it was almost her turn. I would think she was that much closer to the front of line. My Mom would tell me “No”. She would say she was a fighter and that she fought for me. I gave her Super Powers. We even started calling her Wonder Woman.
My Mommy worked, drove me to dance, theater was my Girl Scout Leader, my cheer coach, volunteered at school, and was the best “new” Mommy she could be. We walked to help others with “owies” and raised money. Sometimes she still got tired and sick. She had trouble breathing a lot and I know she was in a lot of pain and sometimes she forgot things and called it chemo brain but I still had my Mommy.
In 2009 right around Christmas my Mommy got a phone call from the doctor. We had a party to go to and Mommy was so quiet. She cried that night. The doctors thought they saw a tumor on her brain. Even at Christmas it was always something. Her and my Daddy fought that night. Cancer made them fight a lot. After Christmas we found out Mommy didn’t have a brain tumor and that it was a tumor on her sinus that would be removed. We also found out she would start to lose her teeth because of all the “bad medicine” that she had taken all these years. “It was always something”.
In spring of 2012 my Mommy picked me up after school. Fifteen now and in a performing arts academy program at school she picked me almost every day. This day we were going to buy a birthday present for my Dad at the mall. We had planned it for a long time. After picking me up Mommy told me she couldn't take me. She wasn't feeling well and was in too much pain to drive. I remember thinking it was always something…”this something” lasted for two months and gave my Mommy fevers of 104 degrees for weeks. The fevers would give her seizures. The fevers would give her pain. I came home from my friend’s house to find her being taken out in the ambulance after fainting. All my friends sat with her in the hospital that night even though it was spring break. We all fought with her and for her.
It took them months to figure out my mommy had developed auto immune complications due to being on “bad medicine” for so long and her body was attacking itself. “It” is always something…but “it” is our something. Maybe I am not like other boys and girls. I have to worry everyday if I come home and there is going to be an ambulance in the driveway. I have to worry my Mommy will stop breathing. I have to worry if she will have a seizure and not pull through. I have to worry if I will get cancer at a young age. “It” changed me and my life forever but “It” didn't hurt me it just made me stronger. It made my Mom stronger. It made “US” stronger. “It” may always be something in our life but we will always fight “It”. I will always be her little Power Puff girl and she will always be my Wonder Woman because every hero needs a sidekick.
This essay was reprinted with permission from Arianna Nutile.
Arianna Nutile is 15 year old student at Larkin High School and won second place in the Teens with a Family or Friend with Cancer category February 27 at the 4th annual Gilda's Club Chicago Teen Essay Awards Reception.
Arianna's goal is to help others who struggle with the difficulties of growing up and having a parent with cancer.
For more information on the contest or Gilda's Clubs many outstanding programs for children, teens, and adults call (312)464-9900 or visit their website www.gildasclubchicago.org