Columns From Quarantine: Reimagining a final quarter dedicated to helping those with leukemia, lymphoma

For fourth-year student Abraham Chorbajian, the final chapter of his undergraduate experience revolved around a cancer fundraising effort that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (courtesy of Andrew Nguyen)

By Abraham Chorbajian

May 22, 2020 at 2:22 p.m.

The coronavirus pandemic has drastically upended life in the most unforeseeable ways. At UCLA, our community is remarkably united by similar feelings of loss, confusion and concern, but also by light, hope and the perspective that the pandemic has brought to the forefront. In “Columns From Quarantine,” Daily Bruin staffers and community submissions highlight the personal stories that mark this unprecedented moment. If you have a quarantine story to tell, you can submit it here or email [email protected].

(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)
(Andrea Grigsby/Illustrations Director)

It was March 12. I was sitting in the Kerckhoff Coffeehouse. The air in the coffee shop was different from my regular walk-ins from my past four years. It wasn’t the stuffy vibe of looming finals stress in the air, but something tenser. After getting my matcha green tea, I opened my UCLA email inbox like I did every day, but it was far from ordinary. I read an email filled with news that changed the way I saw the future of my final quarter.

For other seniors, they read about the potential loss of Spring Sing, botched study abroad trips and final nights out at Rocco’s that were going to be canceled. For me, I only saw a blur, fuzziness around my plans to execute my last big project at UCLA that involved giving back to my campus community and beyond my last days on campus.

In December, I accepted a nomination to compete in a 10-week competition for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man & Woman of the Year campaign. My team of 18 college students and myself were set on our goal of raising $50,000 for blood cancer treatment and research throughout all of spring quarter. I still accepted this nomination even though I had never done anything as big as leading a cancer fundraising effort, not to mention my medical school applications that were fast approaching.

Before signing that nomination sheet though, I looked back at the years of studying, friends and moments I had made and realized that I had fun, but it was time to do something different. Signing the sheet solidified that my last moments at UCLA were to be used to give back as an individual who became a better person leaving UCLA and nothing else.

Though I was foreign to this realm of fundraising, I knew others on campus had unfortunately been affected by cancer in their families. So, I invested in developing the first collegiate club for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, the LLS Club at UCLA.

Even if I didn’t feel the gravity of signing initially, taking on this challenge grew more rewarding each day as I educated the next generation of UCLA students to be empathic, educated and mature by raising awareness about the cause and working with cancer patients.

I could not wait to start my spring quarter.

I could not wait to talk to all my peers about this project and have them donate.

I could not wait to meet with my club members to get to work.

My fellow co-president Michael Schwartz and I literally could not wait, and we booked Ackerman Grand Ballroom for a May cancer benefit concert to accompany this quarter-long fundraising campaign. It was our senior sendoff event that we dreamed of planning since freshman orientation.

Well, that was one weekend before clicking that email in my inbox.

It got harder to be motivated to do this project since none of the pieces of this cancer-fighting puzzle were fitting together anymore. I couldn’t imagine what the puzzle could look like at all. The piece of doing on-campus fundraisers like that concert didn’t fit with the piece of having spontaneous conversations about this project around campus. The piece of working with other student organizations throughout the quarter got jammed with my damaged piece of walking that graduation stage knowing I had given back in the best way I could have.

The pieces were all over and the weeks were filled with tough days.

But I realized that this feeling was necessary to reflect on how I can adapt in this time. I know that there are tough days ahead since everything is out of our control, but I had to know what tough days feel like to appreciate what good days feel like too. It can only get better because this whole project was about giving back to those whose days cannot be bright all the time.

For example, a cancer patient who has to hear those three words, “You have cancer” has far greater weight to carry than telling any random person to, “Stay at home.”

Being able to live every day is a gift taken for granted.

This quarantine realization personally hit me hardest since I had lost my godfather to his decade-long fight against cancer in the beginning of March. As the lone physician in the family, he gave me his final words as a blessing to my hopeful future as a doctor and a reminder to always be impactful wherever I may be. When you put it into perspective, there was a lot I could do as I am willing and able. I even had his words to keep me going.

(Courtesy of Abraham Chorbajian)
Chorbajian lost his godfather to a decade-long battle with cancer in March, which gave him personal motivation to continue pursuing his fundraising efforts virtually. (courtesy of Abraham Chorbajian)

My team of college peers transitioned on-campus events and have turned them virtual, our in-person advertising shifted to creative social media marketing, and we pivoted to emphasize funding for the immunocompromised cancer patients who are at greatest risk during this pandemic.

New life was given to something that once seemed unclear and almost broken.

Our goal didn’t change, our motivation is still strong, but the date of the competition is now running from May 8 to July 19. We are doing this now since this coronavirus situation will end soon, but cancer doesn’t.

So, what could stop me from making light of a once blurry vision of this giving-back project?

This competition has started and we’re keeping our heads up high for the 10 weeks of this competition – even if we’re indoors. We do this for all those who can’t, even if these circumstances are not ideal.

There are better days ahead and I want to build an even brighter vision.

Abraham Chorbajian is a fourth-year psychobiology student from Calabasas, California, and is the co-president of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Club at UCLA.

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