Good evening-[heads of school], faculty and staff, honored guests and of course you, class of 2008. I am honored to be chosen to speak to such intelligent students from one of the finest educational institutions.
Many of you may be wondering why someone my age is giving a commencement speech. I am often told that I look 17, which would make me eligible to be sitting down there with you today. Truth be told, I am a young-looking 25 year old that graduated with the class of 2001. Nevertheless, I have not been out of high school that long and while I may not have as much wisdom as someone much older than myself, I have gained an inordinate amount of life experience. While some of you know my story, I know others do not.
I was just like you until December 5th, 1998 of my sophomore year. That fall and early winter, I was playing JV field hockey and basketball. Mr. C was coaching and always yelling, “Rachel-Pop it! Pop it!”, which meant shoot some 3-pointers. Throughout both seasons, my back had been hurting and we assumed it was from my heavy backpack-because as you all know, the teachers here enjoy piling on lots of homework. One morning when I woke up for before-school basketball practice, I noticed that my legs felt asleep and would not wake up. After undergoing testing, an egg-sized tumor was found wrapped around the top of my spinal cord and was shutting down my body by the hour. I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer known as Askin’s Tumor and immediately underwent emergency surgery. The surgery was able to remove the majority of the tumor and shortly after I started a year of IV chemotherapy and radiation. I stayed in school, but missed extensive class time due to my treatments. With the help of God, family, friends, a supportive school, and an amazing medical team especially Dr. B, I began to heal and I was ready to go back to my former life. Little did I know that God had other plans.
It was January of my Senior Year and after a year and a half of remission the cancer re-emerged in my bone marrow. This time was trickier and treatments were much more intense. I ended up missing the whole semester, spending the majority of it in a hospital bed. Three days after walking on this very stage and wondering what my future held, I was admitted for a bone marrow transplant. According to plan, the bone marrow transplant killed my entire immune system, bringing me as close to death as possible without actually killing me. An IV injected previously frozen stem cells into my body in an effort to build up a new healthy immune system. Due to the nature of this treatment, I developed many infections and complications and barely survived. After transplant, I had to regain strength to start eating and walking again. While most of my friends left for college, I focused merely on survival and healing.
Another year and a half passed where I seemed to be doing better; in fact, I even headed off to college to begin studies in Architecture. After only a semester, my body was once again screaming at me that something was wrong so I made the tough decision to come back home. Shortly after, we learned a new tumor was between my heart, lung, and spine. Even more frightening, this time there was no foreseeable life-saving treatment. I was given only weeks to a few months to live. Three months went by and relatively speaking, I felt alright. I finally said to myself, “Wait, I guess I am not dying right now!” I took a job at an art materials store and moved on with my life! Come fall, a whole year having passed, I received three very low doses of chemotherapy to simply help with pain.
By May of 2004 I was still alive and an amazing surgeon relocated to my hospital. He considered my case and believed the tumor was stable enough to take out. Surgery went very smoothly and the whole tumor was removed-which by this time astoundingly was the size of a small nerf football!
The biopsy results showed the tumor had miraculously died inside me with very minimal treatment. Science cannot explain why I am alive today- only God. It has been 4 years since that surgery and I am the only known case to survive a relapse of Askin’s Tumor following a bone marrow transplant.
Because of all these experiences, my path after high school has been very different than many of yours will be, but I think the lessons I have learned can be applied to your paths as well. The lessons have caused me to be obsessed with life.
The first lesson I would to share is a piece of advice I once heard: plan for a long future, but live for the moment. I think it’s important to note that may mean something completely different to everyone. When I was given a limited amount of time to live, I did not want to do lavish things. For me, living in the moment and planning for the future meant spending time with family and friends, using my God-given talents, and staying open to new learning opportunities along the way. For you, it may mean doing charity work, for others it may mean composing music or going on trips around the world or even sky-diving.
The second lesson is about practicing and receiving empathy. Everyone will have crosses that they carry in their lives-whether big and small. These crosses are often out of our control. The only part we can control is how we choose to handle the hard times, and the people we choose to help us along the way. Because of other’s empathy, my three bouts with cancer were bearable, and sometimes even enjoyable. My friends and family held my hand during treatment, recreated the winter senior dance in my hospital room, and skipped parties to keep me company on Friday nights. These are actions that I will never forget. I challenge each of you to reach out to the people around you—new classmates, dormmates, and your family and friends from home. Be a helping hand when you can and accept a helping hand when you need it and think of the school motto about working together, not alone.
The third lesson is as my grandma always tells me, “do what makes you happy”. For me this is about finding a spiritual, financial, emotional and psychological balance in life. If you keep your heart open to God and are not scared of trial and error, you will find this balance. In my own life I have found that what makes me happy is using my experiences to help others through my speaking, artwork, and writing.
Lastly, always be open to change. Esteemed author, James Caroll once said, “We spend most of our time and energy in a kind of horizontal thinking. We move along the surface of things…[but] there are times when we stop. We sit still. We lose ourselves in a pile of leaves or its memory. We listen and breezes from a whole other world begin to whisper.”
If you happen to stop-either by choice or by force- and your carefully mapped out plan for the future changes, it’s ok. As this change occurs remember that it’s healthy to mourn that loss, but just as important to pick yourself up and find the new life that is waiting for you-one that is full of opportunities you never dreamed of. Remember the advice from my fiancé that I often receive when times are tough: He says, “You are smart, you will figure it out.” And time and again, I figure it out and if I don’t, I ask for help. Because of cancer I had to give up some of my own plans which included playing sports and becoming an architect. Comparing myself to others did not help me. I had to become ok with what I was doing and make my own way. Fortunately by being open to God’s path for my life, I was introduced to the wonderful world of charity, art, writing, and speaking. Today I am blessed with the opportunity to speak around the country, have published writing in a magazine and book, have done advocacy work on Capitol Hill, provide charities with my donated artwork and have even traveled to Denmark to bring awareness to cancer. I never realized how much my life could impact others. Now fresh off completing my Associate’s Degree, my plans for the future now include attending an Art/Art therapy program in the fall and hopefully receiving my Master’s in Art Therapy thereafter.
As you walk away from here tonight and into your bright futures remember to be obsessed with living….be obsessed with living the life of meaning that God has intended for each of you.
I will leave you a quote by Michael Bridge: When our eyes see our hands doing the work of our hearts, the circle of creation is completed inside us, the doors of our souls fly open and love steps forth to heal everything in sight.
Thank you, good luck to each of you and God bless.
Today, I am grateful for family, friends, God and life. ________________