After my rock-climbing group vacation last summer, my new friend, KMac, read my memoir. My last chapter is an excursion into self-discovery—the boy who grew up with immense suffering becomes a man without much. I list all the people in my life who have passed away resulting from cancer: three grandparents, some patients I met in treatment, a friend’s dad, and some others. The list was shorter than expected because until recently, I pushed the cancer community away.
Of the 15 cancer “survivors” on our vacation, some were still in treatment and some would begin again soon. This is the nature of young people with cancer—it is relentless, lacks empathy, and destroys. “Your list is about to grow,” KMac said.
When Sunny’s cervical cancer returned seven months after her original diagnosis, she received chemotherapy and a radical hysterectomy including the removal of her ovaries. Her lymph nodes and surrounding tissue, entire vagina, urethra and bladder were also removed. Radiation blasted her body cavity along her pelvic wall. Her urologist rerouted her urinary tract using a urostomy that hangs from her belly. Sunny’s plastic surgeon recreated a vagina using the left half of her abdominal muscles and the skin that covers them.
Sunny moved 1,200 miles to receive treatment, spent 27 consecutive days in a medical facility, banked 10 embryos and seven eggs, and has zero internal female reproductive organs and a 15-inch scar running down her abdomen, all thanks to her five tumors. Months later her cancer returned again and Sunny underwent more surgery and radiation. Then declared cancer-free, she continued to be hospitalized for infections and other issues.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone endure the level of suffering that Sunny has over the past year.
Scans showed even more cancer and there are no more treatment options for Sunny.
Lings and Doogie, two others from my rock-climbing trip, joined me on Google Hangouts to remember Sunny. We didn’t know how far her cancer spread; how bad it was. We knew that without hope, the devastation can be swift.
“Do you think if she could do it over again, she would not have proceeded with treatment last fall?” I asked Lings. “I know that is unfair to ask; probably horrible to think. But I can’t help it.”
“I don’t know. It was a chance. I think I’d go for the chance,” Lings said.
We praise the fighters for their bravery while looking down on those who choose to live out the remainder of their lives. When, if ever, does quality of life rank higher than quantity?
All at once I suffocated with regret, a feeling I despise. I could have become closer with Sunny had I tried. “Regret is no more useful than hindsight,” Lings wrote in comfort.
In sadness, there is hope and inspiration. Days after learning of Sunny’s latest scan, I felt inspired to attend a random happy hour where I met Leeuwin, a couch-surfing German-Dutch traveler. I connected with Leeuwin on Facebook through a mutual friend and invited her rock-climbing.
Leeuwin, Dutch for lioness, is the climbing nickname I designated for her which was inspired by Lings, Sunny and all my other cancer friends’ climbing nicknames. Later, Leeuwin invited me to sing karaoke, where we and her couch-surfing friends chirped until the Metro stopped running on a Sunday night, several hours before I awoke for work. So I guess in the inspiration resulting from sadness comes adventure and liveliness.
I don’t know how many more rock-climbing, traveling or karaoke adventures Sunny has left. I know that she has touched the lives of thousands of people including those who have known her personally and others who watched her on The Jeff Probst Show. If only the goal in life was to inspire instead of simply to live.
Sunny made me grateful that I am, somehow, so healthy—so I guess with sadness comes sickening shame, too. With the holidays nearing, I am grateful for my health and the chance to sing terrible songs with strangers just because that’s something Sunny would do.
We all envy Sunny’s presence, attitude and energy. I wish we could bottle Sunny up and open the jar on special occasions or when we need sunshine. There are some other people in the world like Sunny, but not many. It is unfair how much the world is going to miss out without her.
Update March 5, 2014: Sunny passed away a month ago, on February 4, 2014, as a result of cancer.