By Claire Nakaki, CHOC Children’s patient
Hello there! My name is Claire Nakaki. I am a freshman in college, but a little over a year ago, I was a soon-to-be high school senior when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. I was a healthy, active volleyball player and I could not understand why this had happened to me. The initial shock was debilitating; cancer had never been something I saw in my future and certainly not my present. I began chemotherapy the month before school started, knowing that I was going to be completing my senior year of high school from a hospital bed. However, after my head and heart had cleared from the turmoil that my diagnosis had brought upon me, I realized that the upcoming year was really just a year. While cancer was something that I knew was going to affect me for the rest of my life, I refused to let it control my life. My surgeon Dr. Nassif asked me before my big surgery (which removed the tumor and replaced the bone with a prosthesis) to set some goals for the upcoming year. Two prominent goals immediately came to mind: I wanted to walk at graduation with my class, on time, without a walker, a wheelchair, or crutches, and I wanted to attend a four-year university after that. These goals did not seem far off, but I unknowingly delved into the hardest year of my life.
I found myself wanting to meet other patients my age almost immediately, begging the Child Life staff to introduce me to any other teens on the floor. I found so much comfort in knowing that there were other teenagers like me experiencing something similar. While no one’s story is identical, discussing the things we do have in common definitely helps soothe an anxious mind. I attended an AYA (Adolescent and Young Adult) support group meeting in my first few months of treatment and then the next following few months, then as often as I could. I had no idea it was even a support group until almost six months in. It felt more like a group of friends who coincidentally have this one big thing in common rather than a solemn meeting to talk about our hardships. Sure, we occasionally brought up things we were going through when someone needed support, but other than that it was just a safe space to be accepted with open arms. This AYA group has become like a second family to me, a fun group of people in all different stages of treatment and survivorship with whom I feel comfortable discussing anything and everything with. I do not know where I would be in my survivorship without this group of people, as well as the entire Child Life staff and AYA facilitators.
I am often asked if the experience was difficult and if I am sad that I missed my senior year of high school. I always have the same answer. Yes, of course it was difficult. I had no idea how difficult it would be. And I am painfully aware that my treatment went much smoother than most. I stayed on the same treatment plan and had very few bumps along the road. I am sure that my classmates enjoyed their senior year at school, but I would not trade this past year for any other situation. I truly mean that. I have learned so much from the genuinely kind and empathetic people that I met at CHOC, both patients and staff members. I reiterate time and time again that I feel so lucky to have had 17 years of life before cancer entered my life and I know that I have many more to come. I met so many younger kids during my stay at CHOC, mainly just a “hello” in the hallway, but there were a small few that I really got to know personally. These kids hold such a special place in my heart. I served as somewhat of a mentor to a few, due to my age and stage in my treatment, what kinds of procedures I had undergone, and what kinds of machines I was attached to. The kids I got to know made such a huge impact on my general attitude towards life and I truly hope that I made a positive impact on them. One piece of advice that I want everyone who goes through cancer to grasp is that no matter how bad you feel or how hard it is to meet your daily goals, your journey is always just one day at a time. It is so important to remind yourself that every day is just 24 hours. All you have to do is just get through the day. Take every step of the way just one day at a time. Soon enough, you will begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, I am now a first-year college student, which means that yes, I did meet my goals. I finished the last step of my treatment and was released from the hospital on June 9th and walked at my graduation without a wheelchair, a walker, or crutches one week later. I was accepted to college in the middle of my treatment, and completed all of my required courses in order to attend in the fall. I achieved these goals with a year of incredibly difficult work and with the unconditional support from my family, friends, and CHOC staff. There will always be things I cannot do because of what happened to me and I still go to physical therapy twice a week and have to take extra precautions in almost everything I do, but I am so happy to be back in the real world, living my new normal.