It Whispers

December 5, 2007
I still hear the whispers of encouragement to search for a cure. Unfortunately, most diagnoses for ovarian cancer start at stage four. If only she had heard it whisper sooner.
Our families developed a close bond beginning in second grade, mostly through school activities. She and my mom were my Cub Scout den leaders together, and our families had many pool parties and campouts together. She knew her way around power tools, which was quite useful for our Odyssey of the Mind (OM) team and in making our Pinewood Derby cars. Her knowledge and skills really impressed me! She even taught me how to pitch a tent. Unbeknownst to us, a deadly foe had been lurking within her body. She had been diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Her older son and I secretly designed possible treatments for cancer, just in case her treatments didn’t work. My friend’s mom did not back away from life, though. Instead, she volunteered to lead even more activities. I marveled at her enthusiasm and tried hard to apply her energy in my own pursuits.
She coached soccer teams, hosted pool parties, coordinated awards and recognition for Cub Scouts, carpooled to swim team events, and lead design meetings at work. She epitomized the modern mom, a lady who could balance work and family with a smile. In fact, very few knew of her condition until fifth grade. Only in the final months of her illness did she begin to conserve physical energy. Instead, she focused her energy into planning and coordinating events. I remember one cold, brisk autumn morning near West Virginia gleaning apples for soup kitchens. The vivid red and orange leaves decorated every tree in sight, rustled by a cold wind. She chose to wait for us, barefooted, in the SUV. This was the first time that she ever sat on the sidelines and watched others do something. It turns out that the chemotherapy left major radiation burns on the bottoms of her feet, which looked very painful. She still drove a carload of kids and held her head high, sharing pleasant conversations with us. It was the first outward sign of the intensity of her treatment, but her passion for life shone brightly in her blue eyes. The leaves falling from the trees foreshadowed colder days ahead. During the winter, she spent many days inside resting and conserving strength. The following Spring and Summer, just before sixth grade, she and my mom worked together coordinating the three-day class field trip to Camp Highroad. I admired her tenacity and focus in the midst of such chaos. She was invincible, and I was sure that we would be having barbecues and pool parties soon.

As the months passed, the cancer began to take its toll on her, and she received more treatments, which had an enervating effect. She took additional medications and began to greet us from a comfy swivel chair in her kitchen next to a fireplace. It made me realize how serious her condition was, but her intense blue eyes were still never obfuscated by her underlying exhaustion. We would sit and talk or play computer games with her, but it was strange to be at OM competitions and pool parties without her. Unfortunately, her cancer continued to worsen, and she was forced to go to the hospital. I was scared of the uncertainty. Just as suddenly as the cancer had impaired her life, it took it.

As my mom read a poem about friendship at the funeral, I imagined instead hearing his mom’s voice reading these words to describe my mom. At that moment, I fully understood the loss that my two friends felt, and tears streamed down my cheeks. A few days after the memorial service, my friend from OM rode her bike to my house. We had to do something to honor her and decided run lemonade stands with the rest of our team to raise money for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC). We made several trips to various parks and baseball games with rolling stands of cookies, popsicles, and lemonade. We hoped to raise $500 to contribute to NOCC, but instead we raised $879.91 in four days! We presented an oversized check to the family along with teal ovarian cancer bracelets from NOCC, which read, “It whispers.” I still wear my bracelet today. Highlighting the love of this family, her remaining medicines were sent on a mission trip with our church to Cuba, where it helped to save many lives.
Even though my friend and I did not find a cure in time to save his mom, this tragic event made a lasting impact on me. I still research telomeres and telomerase for a cure. Telomeres are “caps” on the ends of DNA that protect the genetic code from degrading during mitosis. Telomerase is a molecule found in cancer that rebuilds the telomeres, allowing cells to continue dividing infinitely. After attending a lecture by Dr. Lance Liotta on proteomics and individualized therapy for cancer, I spoke with him about introducing specific yeasts into cells that destroys telomerase, which would cause the DNA to wear down and the cancer cell to eventually initiate apoptosis (destroy itself). He thought for a moment and concurred that “it just might work.” I was ecstatic, and he invited me to his biomedical engineering laboratory for a day to observe his biomedical engineers. This intensified my passion for biotechnology even more.
Late at night, before I fall asleep, I do my best thinking. In times like these, I can still hear it whisper. My desire to save my friend’s mom and others from cancer did not die along with her physical being. I picture her caring smile and intense blue eyes, as she seems to whisper words of encouragement to continue my quest for a cure. I know that she is not gone in my heart, and I will always hear it whisper and I will listen.

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