By Jeongwoo Seo
Introduction to My Diagnosis, by Alysa Cummings
When I first met Jeongwoo, he was in 10th grade and I was assigned to be his homebound English tutor. Once a week we would sit at his dining room table and work for two hours at a time on his assignments. As the months went by, I learned about his illness and why he wasn’t in school; Jeongwoo was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoid Leukemia (ALL) during his freshman year of high school. He explained to me that Leukemia is a type of blood cancer also known as a cancer of the white blood cells that is the most common type of childhood cancer. By the time Jeongwoo was in 12th grade, we were comfortable enough with one another that my student knew that his tutor was a cancer survivor too. This might explain in part why, when it came time for Jeongwoo to start working on essays for his college applications, that we had the following conversation:
“What do you think I should I write about?” Jeongwoo asked.
“What do you want to write about?” I said.
“Some of my friends are writing college essays on the person in their life who influenced them the most.”
“That’s one way to go,” I said. “Do you want to do that?”
“The websites I’ve looked at say that the secret to a successful college essay is being authentic,” Jeongwoo said.
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “That’s always an essential element of good writing.”
“That’s why I want to write about my cancer diagnosis,” Jeongwoo said.
And that’s precisely what he did. Now that he’s been accepted to college, Jeongwoo accepted my invitation to share his essay with the wider audience of OncoLink readers.
“Do you understand, Jeongwoo?” asks the doctor, in her heavy Russian accent.
“Yes I do. Thank you,” I say, smiling and nodding my head respectfully.
She takes a deep breath, moves her chair closer to my hospital bed with an even more concerned look on her face, says slowly. “Do you understand what leukemia is?” And without giving me a chance to respond, continues, “It is a type of cancer,” she says in a serious voice. She looks at me for a reaction. Is she expecting me to cry? Or run out of the room screaming? Maybe I’m not behaving the way she expects a 15-year old young man would to the devastating news she has just shared.
“Yes, Doctor. I understand one hundred percent.” And once again I thank her for telling me what’s wrong with me. At least now I can make sense of a mysterious fever, my loss of appetite and those strange bumps on my neck. Maybe the doctor thinks I’m in shock. Or totally oblivious to the seriousness of my medical condition. Within moments, she excuses herself, leaving me alone in my hospital room.
For lots of healthy people, the “C word” is synonymous with pain, darkness and death. I think I get that. But for me, over the past three years since my diagnosis, it has meant the complete opposite – a time of reaching down deep for reserves of strength and resilience, resources I didn’t even know I had until the time I needed them the most.
There are a handful of unforgettable moments from my first hospitalization three years ago, encounters that are so vivid in my memory, almost like scenes from a movie…
I remember two days after my diagnosis, a pair of young female doctors pushing my bed into the procedure room. I was going to have a bone marrow biopsy along with my first chemotherapy infusion. Looking at the expressions on my sister’s and mother’s faces, I knew they were worried about me. I kept telling them that I was going to be okay. (Isn’t that weird? I’m the sick one and I’m comforting them?) I suggested that they work on thinking positive thoughts and then, out of nowhere, I stared complaining about the squeaking wheel on my bed. (that’s such an aggravating noise, like someone scratching their nails across a chalkboard). My complaining worked; my mother and sister were momentarily distracted.
I remember the procedure room, the doctors going down their list of pre-op tasks, such as repeating my patient number. The truth is, I have heard this a million times ever since being admitted to the hospital: Jeongwoo Seo – 55292383, Jeongwoo Seo – 55292383, Jeongwoo Seo – 55292383…it’s stuck in my head like a catchy pop song on the radio.
I ask one of the doctors what her favorite food is. She replies, “Cheesesteaks from Pat’s.” I say, “With American cheese or cheese whiz?” She says, “Who in their right mind would order a Philly cheesesteak with American cheese?” We laugh out loud at the very thought of it. But maybe the more important question is: why am I joking about Philly cheesesteaks before a biopsy? Looking back, I know I was truly curious about my strange new medical environment. Beyond that, I wanted to be much more than patient number 55292383. And with nothing more than a little cheese whiz, I became human. A bit memorable. Certainly much more than just a teenage boy with leukemia from room 217.
Next, the anesthesiologist runs the sedation medicine into my IV line. Suddenly I feel as if someone has super glued my lips together. Even though I want to know more about the doctor – where she went to school, why she chose to become a doctor, her hobbies – all of the questions come out as gibberish because I am so altered by the drugs. So instead, while I lay there on the table, I think of the offensive strategies the Flyers could use to get into the playoffs.
I remember the next day. I am riding my exercise bike and my buddy Ryan enters my hospital room with his head down. I can tell he is uncomfortable with this whole situation – visiting a sick friend in the hospital. Ryan stares down at his shoes – how awkward he must feel – and says in a sorrowful voice, “I’m so sorry, Jeongwoo”. I quickly reply “Sorry for what, Ryan”? He stumbles over his answer, “that you have umm you know leu-leu-leukemia.” I say, “Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault, it’s nobody’s fault.”
Then he asks me, “What’s chemo like?” Maybe he expects me to talk about pain and puking. Instead, I say, “Let me tell you the funniest thing.” I say, “After an infusion of Adriamycin, my urine changes color; it looks like pink lemonade.” As soon as I say that, there’s a moment of silence and then we both look at each other and burst out laughing. We each cover our mouths with our hands because everyone else on the floor is sleeping and we don’t want to wake the sleeping babies on the next ward. We laugh until we cry, like two little kids; it feels so good.
Life is like a game of Monopoly. Here’s what I mean: in Monopoly when I draw a card that says I have lost a turn, I don’t question why, because it is what it is. Life is a little like that: a board game – good sometimes, but other times, not so much. And when something in life goes badly, if I want to win, I just need to wait my turn, roll the dice again and take it from there.
I have been in treatment for three years. In one more year I will officially end treatment. I won’t use a bad situation as an excuse to feel bad and not enjoy life. I have the power to turn any bad situation into a better one by how I look at it. Life is meant to be enjoyed. That’s the choice I choose to make.