10/18/2010 04:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Untold Truths of a Teen With Cancer

You will find that the third place winner of the Andre Sobel Essay contest, Arianna Elnes, could have easily been the first. She could be first for the special reason that all the courageous young people who enter this contest could; it is with no ordinary yardstick that our judges measure the testimonies of the entrants. We see their writing as messages directly transported from their souls to us, the readers, as they reach deep inside of themselves and offer up their insight.

Arianna's essay could have been titled, "Behind the Curtain." She lifts the veil of illusion that she created to appear comforting for her parents' sake and fiercely pulls it aside and exposes the truth. It is her truth and perhaps the untold truth of my own son Andre who died at about the same age Arianna is. Is this how my son felt? Is this how everyone feels whose life is threatened by illness, regardless of age? Is the visible face of our beloved patient's face, not the real one?

Once we glimpse behind the mask put on for the sake of those they love, I don't think so. Arianna announces up front that she has a need to tell her parents at last what she feels. While ill, she did not want to burden them. This noble gesture is common among children. I know that my Andre showed only courtesy and valor in order to lighten the immensity of our sorrow and fear. The patient Arianna consoled her parents, but, at last, she feels at a safe distance from the threat of her brain tumor to tell them about the interminable waiting without assurance of safety at the end of the road. She writes about feeling jealous of the photos of herself before being damaged by the illness. She is envious of the girl who could run and ski. She speaks about the smile that she offered up as a shield of protection to others because she had nothing else to give.

She ends on the note that is felt by all that have been to edge: that of thankfulness for her ferocious strength that she could not have imagined that she would have, and for reaching the mindset that she can conquer the impossible.

Dear Mom and Dad,

When I first heard about this essay, I asked for ideas about what to write. You suggested that I write about my struggle with paralysis and my eventual success. Or how I reinvented the way I live my life, and how I have been living an adventure that I never would have thought possible before this experience. How tough I was. How happy I am. "Write about something uplifting," you told me. It is true, my story is uplifting, but that is not what I have needed to tell you. That is what you have seen from the outside, and it is not what I have felt. It is not what I try to forget but keeps rushing back. The "uplifting story" is not what has been haunting me. What you don't know is that when I was diagnosed with brain cancer, I swore to myself that I would get through each day with a smile on my face because I didn't want to burden you. Perhaps my story is a success because of this promise, and perhaps it is the only way I survived. But perhaps it is also why I feel so alone, like I'm fighting a battle by myself, and why too often I find myself in tears, trying to comprehend all that I've gone through, and wishing that someone else knew as well. So, Mom, Dad, this is what I've needed to tell you.

You know: I was diagnosed on August 4, 2008, only four days after we had moved to a new city, in a new state, and all of my friends were halfway across the country. What you don't know is that I would spend my days looking out the window, and as my room faded from orange back to beige while the sun set across the sky, I would picture my friends, way, way out there, beginning their first day of school, going to track or swim practice, cheering at football games, doing homework and studying for tests. It killed me inside to know that they were going about their usual lives while I was paralyzed, in a hospital room, wishing I was someone else. I felt as though the world kept spinning and I was getting left behind.

You know: I was in the hospital for a long time. What you don't know is how it feels to be in the hospital all day, watching the clock tick by, waiting and waiting...Waiting. Minutes waiting...tick, tick, tick...Hours waiting...hours...hours...days waiting...days...days...Weeks waiting...months...waiting...and waiting to get out of that place. I looked forward to getting shots and medicine and IVs just because it meant a break in the monotony, a break in the deafening silence.

You know: I have carried on with my life, pushing toward the future without looking back. But what you don't know is that I don't look back because it is too painful. I don't look at pictures of myself because I am jealous of the girl with the naï ve smile, who had no idea what was coming. I am jealous of the girl who could run, who could swim, who could ski, who could hike without limping. When I look at pictures from before I was diagnosed, I want to go back but I can't, so I choose to move forward.

You know: I am happy that I chose to move from Nebraska back to Arizona to finish my senior year. But what you don't know is that when I went back, I was the mysteriously sick girl. I was the girl with steroided chubby cheeks who walked with a limp and had to take the elevator.

You know: I went through this experience with a smile on my face. What you don't know is how tiring it was to force that smile as a means of protection -- protecting myself from falling apart, and protecting you from worrying.

You know: I go to the hospital for an MRI every three months. What you don't know is that as I'm sitting in the backseat of the car on the way there, I'm mentally preparing myself for being given an amount of time. Do you know how scary and exhausting it is to prepare every three months for being told you're going to die?

You know: I ran half a mile last week on the treadmill. It was huge for me to accomplish something that I had been working on with steadfast hope and determination for over a year, and I rejoiced; I still rejoice. But what I didn't tell you was that in that same week, my sister passed me on the stairs and huffed, "Arianna, you're going so slow!" And it felt like all of my accomplishments leaked out of the wound and disappeared. I had to tighten my jaw and tilt my head up as I finished climbing the stairs, in order to hold back my tears.

You know: people say I'm "courageous and brave." What you don't know is that I cringe at the sound of those words. If I am courageous, then courage doesn't exist. If I am courageous, then the word courage means to live with fear.

You know, and what still remains true: if I were to live my life over again, I would keep everything the same. My time in the hospital gave me time to think about how I live my life. My paralysis gave me insight to what I consider most important. My time in Arizona helped me learn who my true friends are. My MRIs are a reminder that I am alive and living fully -- that I should plan for a long future but jump on every opportunity knowing that all of my time is a gift. My time recovering from paralysis gave me a new mindset for conquering the impossible. And although I have not come out of this courageously, I have come out strong. I am happy, and I am thankful.


Arianna's battle with cancer has empowered her and given her the courage to live the life she's always imagined. After graduating high school in 2009, she took a year off to simply gain experiences while continuing her recovery. With a new outlook on life, she spent the summer working at a salmon cannery in Alaska before traveling around Central and South America as well as Iceland, seeing the world with a new set of deeply appreciative eyes. Arianna is now attending Knox College in Illinois, and is currently undecided in terms of a major, but has an interest in Creative Writing, Linguistics, and Anthropology.

Arianna's advice to somebody else going through a similar battle is to acknowledge that this process is life altering; it's a shock. "You will hit times when you are emotional, and you won't understand. Just know that it's OK to be sad sometimes. Recognize that feeling, but don't feel a need to try to explain it."