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Opinion: Cancer taught me the true meaning of love, power of community

Amelia Zai is pictured sitting on a hospital chair at 11 years old. (Courtesy of Amelia Zai)

By Amelia Zai

May 23, 2024 11:11 p.m.

“I love you” is a phrase my family rarely exchanged. We often navigated our emotions in silence, even in the most daunting of times.

Then, one day, three words pierced through the silent affection my family subscribed to: “You have cancer.”

Suddenly, the quietness I was once used to transformed into a cloud of fear and uncertainty. At that time, more than ever, I needed to hear, “I love you.”

Being diagnosed with metastatic Ewing sarcoma at 11 years old was tough on my family and me. In a household where love often spoke in silence, a cancer diagnosis sparked shock and stillness into my family’s environment.

We all coped with the news differently. My dad, being a physician, took it upon himself to read every research paper he could find on Ewing sarcoma. My mom purchased a three-ring blue binder to document the scans and tests that filled my new life. And my sister tried to ignore that cancer had entered our family.

It was not just a disease that affected me – it impacted my entire family.

I didn’t quite understand the gravity of what my family and I would be facing. It was easier for me to ignore the fact that I had entered a reality where very little was in my control.

Amid cancer treatment, it was easy to focus on all the difficulties and hurdles my family and I had to overcome. The doctor’s appointments, seven-hour chemotherapy treatments and constant fatigue made life feel uninspiring and repetitive.

This grueling cycle continued until one day I was scrolling on YouTube and came across a video of Zach Sobiech in a series called “My Last Days.” He was 17 years old and living with a terminal osteosarcoma diagnosis. Moved by his story, I discovered that Sobiech had written a song called “Clouds,” not only to say goodbye to his family but also to remind them of the inevitability of their meeting again.

The chorus of the song declares “And we’ll go up, up, up / But I’ll fly a little higher / Go up in the clouds because the view’s a little nicer / Up Here, My Dear / It won’t be long now, it won’t be long now.” Sobiech never explicitly says the words “I love you” but instead introduces the idea that we will all be reunited with our loved ones.

Similarly to Sobiech, I was diagnosed with bone cancer that inhibited my ability to walk, and this changed my reality into a life I would never have expected calling my own. And through his lyrics, Sobiech emphasizes that at the end of the day, all we want is to be with the ones we love.

We want to need others and want them to need us.

Since I first listened to “Clouds,” I have begun to notice that my family shows love through smaller gestures. My dad will slide me a bowl of sliced oranges while I’m doing my homework, my mom will ask if I have eaten yet and my sister will affectionately send me Instagram Reels about how annoying it is to live with an older sister.

As I reflect on all my photos from cancer treatment, I sympathize with the young girl in those photos who was surrounded by bags of medicine, uncertain about her future. But when I look a little closer, keeping in mind Sobiech’s message about the importance of our loved ones, I see so much more.

In a photo where I am receiving my first dose of chemotherapy, I see my mom sitting next to me. I remember overhearing her tell my dad that she was going to work remotely for nine months — an uncommon move before the COVID-19 pandemic — because she wanted to stay by my side throughout every chemotherapy session. I think of my dad, who took the photo, and how he handed me a bowl of sliced oranges that night.

Beyond the images, I remember how my sister went to my seventh grade teacher to collect my homework to complete and deliver it to me. My classmates sent me cards, my close friends visited me when I was admitted into the hospital and my mom’s colleagues gave me a huge “get well soon” gift box filled with beanies, cards and coloring books.

Sobiech’s song taught me that these small acts are unique ways of saying, “I love you.”

“Clouds” is more than just a song to me. It is a clear portrayal of what love means to me and my family: a silent but omnipresent essence. It is there when my father and I sit in silence during a FaceTime call when I’m 3,000 miles away from home and when my sister makes fun of my fashion sense. Ultimately, as Sobiech taught me, love is present even when our time on this Earth comes to an end.

When I was first diagnosed, I went online to learn how others found joy in their newfound normal. I found a lot of open forums advocating for “finding the silver lining.” For some, it was knowing that completing one treatment session meant being one closer to the end. For others, it was about taking time to discover themselves.

I agree that there is always a silver lining, but sometimes we need the help of others to find it.

Sobiech helped me find mine by shedding light on the unwavering support my family provided and continues to provide me. For example, after a rigorous week of chemotherapy, my dad took me to get crepes at a nearby cafe. Once, after a blood transfusion, my mom took me to see the live-action film “Beauty and the Beast.”

From these cherished moments, I’ve found my answer. My silver lining is the light I find in my family’s day-to-day interactions with the ones we love, because this light is always there. It was there for me when I took my first steps and when I was in treatment, and it remains present even now, as I am seven years cancer free.

“The connections we build for ourselves are all part of the same network that acts as our support system every waking moment of our lives,” Alexandra Yakimova, a Daily Bruin Opinion writer, wrote in an article. I couldn’t agree more.

Although the audible “I love you” may not be consistently heard within the walls of my family’s home, the love we speak in our small actions is what lays the foundation for the unspoken bond that gets me through life’s trials and triumphs.

The love my family endlessly has to give transcends words.

During cancer treatment, I thought that three words would fix my emotional turmoil. But now I realize that although my family may not say “I love you” to each other every day, through our togetherness, we do.

And that is enough. In fact, it’s more than enough love for me.

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