It Happened to Me: I Was a "Make-A-Wish" Kid

I had life-threatening cancer as a teenager. When a woman told me I was applicable for Make-A-Wish, I told her I wanted to meet Conan O'Brien.

Oct 5, 2011 at 1:30pm | Leave a comment

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In my 23 years of experience, those of us who have had a debilitating sickness or disease will tell you one, singular truth: Your body is not something to be trusted.

It's the main reason I hate health and diet books. They always tell you to "love your body" and "treat it with respect." But the harsh reality is your body can turn on you in an instant.

You look down at that one freckle you've always had on your chest, notice it looks a little different and suddenly have sketchy mole cancer. Or maybe one day you have a pain in your side, and soon a doctor is telling you about ovarian cancer. On any given moment, of any given day, you could have an aneurysm, a stroke, a heart attack. My body turned on me once, and there is not a day that goes by when I don't consider the fact that it may, and statistically WILL, turn on me again. I don't trust it for a second.

I was 15 when I found out I had cancer. It was the summer before my sophomore year of high school, which I was really excited for, mainly because of the school choir. A month before school started, my voice changed. I spent a few weeks constantly struggling to speak clearly and get enough air out of my lungs. It's that feeling RIGHT before you get a cold: you lose your voice, sound groggy, and can practically feel the soreness, tenderness and nose sludge on its way.

I didn't FEEL or act sick, except for the fact that I sounded like a dude with a chest cold. My mom took me to the doctor, who stuck a huge camera down my throat, and found a large lump right above my right vocal cord. We were assured that it was probably a benign cyst.

Since I was a singer, and I hated sounding like I was the Movie Trailer Voice, they decided to do a quick and harmless procedure to remove it. I don't remember some aspects of my Cancer Time, so I don't remember how I felt after the procedure. But I was 15. I'm sure I came out of surgery worrying about my social life, or what was on TV that night.

I don't remember how long after the surgery this happened, but my parents sat me down in the kitchen. Our kitchen table has a low hanging lamp over it, and I remember feeling like I was in an interrogation room. But my mom was crying. And I sat there, playing with a thread coming off my shirt, as they told me the news: It wasn't a cyst. It was cancer.

The next day at school, I got through a few classes unscathed. But somewhere, at some time that morning, I started sobbing in the bathroom and couldn't get off the floor. So my mom picked me up and I went home. And I think I knew nothing would ever be the same again. I was officially that girl who was sick. The sick girl.

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I spent that week getting tested. I had vial after vial of blood drawn. Nurses and doctors looked at me like I was a child. Part of me felt like I was a child, but another part of me wanted to scream at the nurses, and tell them to treat me like an adult and tell the truth: that no one knew what was wrong with me yet.

But I wasn't an adult. I was in The Children's Hospital. I felt in-between.

I spent that week thinking I was dying. I had this vision of myself, as the girl who died before getting a driver's license or going to prom. I thought I wouldn't get married or have babies. I remember getting a scan of my head and upper chest, and my mom telling the nurses to put one of those big vests you use at the dentist over my stomach and lower body, "so the radiation from the machine won't harm the reproductive organs." I almost laughed at how absurd it sounded. I figured I wouldn't need them anymore.

I had a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. I was lucky it was caught early. The fact that it was right above my vocal cords, the one organ in my body I didn't want to mess with, was actually a blessing in disguise. My voice very well could've saved my life.

The doctors assured me that most of the cells were removed from the initial surgery, but cells could still be growing in my throat. And cancer cells tend to hide out in the spinal column, when chemotherapy comes chasing after them. So I would need numerous rounds of chemotherapy, spanning four months total. I would also need numerous spinal taps to check my spinal fluid for any of those asshole cancer cells that like to chillax in there undetected.

One of the first questions I asked was if my hair would fall out. My doctor nodded and quietly told me it would. I cried. I cried because I'm a girl, and I liked my long ponytail, and I liked looking normal. I didn't want to walk around with the evidence right there for people to see.

I had another procedure to test my bone marrow, because cancer cells also like to go on va-cay there. There weren't any cells in my bones, but I did learn an important lesson that day: morphine doesn't work on me. MORPHINE DOESN'T WORK ON ME!!! My bones felt broken to pieces, and the pain medicine felt like they were putting water in my IV. I can honestly say it's the worst pain I've ever felt.

The day my hair fell out was like any other morning. My mom thought it'd be good to go to school that day, to feel normal and be with my friends. So I got up to get ready. I noticed my pillow case had more hair on it than usual. I ran my fingers through my hair and a huge clump came out. I put on a hat, hoping beyond hope that my hair would just stay put and be where it's supposed to be. I begged God on the way to school for it to stay.

That night, my friend and I sat and pulled it out together. My long, beautiful hair was being thrown in a pink trashcan by my bed. In the end, it became so wispy and sparse that my mom just cut it to get it over with.

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I would be in the hospital for a few days, and then home for a few days. I had bags upon bags of IV fluids pumped into me. The chemotherapy went to work like it was supposed to. My energy level dropped, I felt nauseous and angry. One round of treatment made my esophagus raw, so every time I swallowed it felt like knives stabbing my chest.

My mom would bring me food. My little sister would do her homework on the bench by my hospital bed. My dad was there, too. Friends came to visit and brought me presents. Teachers, family members and old friends stopped by. I watched movies. I let nurses rub my back when I was too tense to lay down. People like to tell me I'm "brave" and "an inspiration." But I'm not, and I wasn't. I was just sitting in a bed, day after day.

While in the hospital one day, a woman came and told me I was applicable for a Make-A-Wish. I felt like I was about 80 years old, but according to her since I was under 18, I qualified. I could go anywhere, be anything I wanted or meet someone famous. I told her I wanted to meet Conan O'Brien, and she looked at me like I was insane.

By Christmas, I was done. I could go home to the room my family decorated for me. I had to continue to give blood, get scans and talk about how I felt, but in the literal sense, I was fine. I was supposed to bounce back. I'm not sure if I ever 100 percent did.

It took a few months, but Make-A-Wish came through. My mom, sister and I were brought to New York City. My parents got divorced and my dad moved out a few months after I was done with treatment (LOVELY timing, eh?) so it was just us girls.

We were brought to Conan's studio. I sat in the greenroom, waiting for him anxiously. I initially wanted to meet him because his spirit is so pure and lighthearted. He seems truly joyful and happy when in front of a crowd. And I'll tell you, he's hilarious in person, and so friendly. He showed me around the studio, explained how things worked, and introduced me to how a great TV show is made. I will forever be in his debt, because that meeting/tour with him changed my life. I knew then and there that I wanted to work in television.

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The end of my high school experience was different than I thought it would be. I think going through what I went through fractured me in some way. I didn't know how to relate to anyone anymore. I didn't like the big crowds, I went to prom for 20 minutes, and worked in retail to take my mind off things. But mostly I just felt weird and out of place.

College was a godsend. I studied broadcast journalism. Today I live in Los Angeles with my best friend, and work on a successful network TV show. Conan was my inspiration, and I hope to one day thank him for making me feel like a person who could go on to accomplish something.

Today, I worry. Every time I'm singing to myself in my car, I worry that my cancer could come back. I worry I could get cancer somewhere else. On any given moment, of any given day, there could be cells forming somewhere. My body could betray me again. And I really, really hope it doesn't. Because I'm only getting started.

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