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Book Awards - Essays - 2011

The following three essays were submitted by students at Plymouth State University (PSU) when applying for Joan Merrill Book Awards and Michelle Morse Book Awards in 2011.

See photos of 2011 Book Award Winners. See photos of 2012 Book Award Winners.

1) How Has Cancer Affected My Life?

It is so hard to believe that come April, my mother will have been gone seven years. Seven years. In that time I have entered high school, got my driver's license, worked my first job, worked my second job, graduated high school, entered college, worked my third job, almost completed three years of college and excelled in my academic career to a point that I never thought possible seven years ago. Seven years ago my mom died of pancreatic cancer.

Cancer has affected my life by changing it completely. Having a parent, especially your mother, be diagnosed with cancer is a very scary, life altering thing. The uncertainty that plagues your every thought of her, the dread of what is to come, the dwindling hope that things will eventually go back to normal are constant. It is exhausting to think, to remember and to carry on when your mother has cancer. I went through all of that at the age of fourteen. When my mom finally succumbed to her disease, I still had to carry on in the way that I know she would have wanted me to.

As I entered high school, I wanted to surround myself with my good friends and family, caring more about my personal relationships than my grades. I also had a tremendous responsibility at home that has formed my current work ethic and personality. My eleven year old sister became my responsibility while my dad was at work. After I got my license, I drove her and myself to and from school, to doctor's appointments, down to Massachusetts to visit my mother's sisters who have been my surrogate mothers since she passed.

My motto, and something that I am trying to instill in my sister, is family first. My family is the most important thing in my life and I would do anything for them. My aunt Linda lived with me while my mother was sick and for a year after she died to help look after my sister and me. My aunt Nancy was at my house every weekend she could, taking my mom to her doctor's appointments and helping my sister and me in every way possible. My cousin Julie was my confidant, my beacon on knowledge and wisdom who has not only helped me get through my mother's death, but helped me navigate the waters of adolescence and adulthood. I visit them often. I speak to my aunts at least three times a week, just like any other student speaks with their parents. Any time a family member is in the hospital, which is often with the myriad of health problems my older family members have and fortunately not too serious, I am down there as so as possible. I love spending time with them because they are the people who know me best and love me for me no matter what.

I have learned since my mother's death, how important my family is to me. I appreciate my Dad and everything he has done for my sister and me. He had no clue how to deal with two teenage daughters on his own, but he has done a great job with both of us, and not only is he my father, but he is my friend. My sister is the most important person in my life, with my boyfriend coming in at a close second. We have the best relationship of any sisters I know, we are terrific friends. I am fiercely protective of her and do my best to give her my wisdom and guidance on life and college. I try to instill the values that I have in her, although we both have our mother's values.

I took over the "mother" role of my sister when my mom died and I think I am starting to ease back that role as she is now eighteen and needs to find her own way in the world, like I did. I want to make sure everything is easy for her and she has all the information she needs to make the right decisions. I help her with her homework, even from Plymouth. I am her biggest supporter; she is a very talented artist whose art has earned state wide awards. I want her to do things better than I did them, and with better judgment. I want her to learn from my mistakes and excel in her own way. All of these things I am saying are what a mother wants for her children, and I find that I am a vessel for my mother at times. Those are her wants and dreams as much as they are mine.

I am finally excelling in school like my mother wanted me to. I am being recognized by the University for my hard work and I know that my mother could not be more proud. I have the ability to be a student leader and take charge of important and sometimes chaotic situations rationally and effectively. I know that I can rely on myself and my judgment to guide me through tough decisions and complicated demands. I am proud of myself for my abilities. I am so happy that I am able to make my Dad and my aunts proud. They are the reason I made it to college and came through all of the heartache as a better person. I know that I am finally on the right track and achieving my goals in life. I wish I could share these moments with her, but I know that I have become the sister, daughter, niece, friend and student that I am today because she is gone. It's a hard thing to say that I am happy how things turned out, but it is true. Things may have been easier had my mother been around but I would not be the amazing person I believe I am today. I am a firm believer in everything happening for a reason since my mother died, and every accomplishment further proves that.

- Name Withheld, PSU Student

2) How Has Cancer Affected My Life?

Passing through the Welcome Center in the Ice Arena, I came across the flyer for this scholarship. I debated for some time saying to myself I'm a horrible writer and is my story even worth a try? However, I believe my story is worth a try. Not many people, including my best friend, even knows what I have been going through the last 2 years. This is how it goes...

Starting my senior year in high school, I lost my home, both parents lost their jobs, and my mom came down with cervical cancer. What should have been the best year of my high school career was the worst. My mom and I don't have the common mother-daughter relationship; she's not only my mom, she's my best friend. She found out that her cells had mutated in her cervix and that to try and stop it from getting worse the doctors were going to try and scrape out pieces of her cervix. They do this by using a laser and burning out the bad parts. Through three treatments I drove her; she was nervous, but I was there for her. I had to be brave; she needed me. As they burned out parts of her cervix, I waited with her and held her hand. A few months went by and the cancer didn't get worse. We thought that she had won her battle. After a happy graduation and my brother coming home from school, we celebrated. A few months went past and we found out that it had started back again, only this time I was away and my mom was alone. I sat here in my Smith dorm feeling so guilty for leaving her. So, every weekend I drove home to let her know she's not alone. Aall my friends asked, "what's the point of you even being here. You go home every weekend - stay, have fun with us."

She went through her treatments again and I went with her. We didn't know that this is hereditary. One weekend, when I went home to see her, I made a yearly gynecologist appointment. He told me I have beginning signs that are exactly what my mom has. By this time, I was half way through second semester. My freshman year roommate was in my room. I hadn't even told my best friend Caroline any of this. For all she knew, I was just homesick, but Kayla was in our room and I just broke down. I couldn't tell my mom because she was already a wreck. Now, it is second semester sophomore year. My mom just had her whole cervix removed and I am trying to figure out what to do. For now, I've changed my diet, exercise every single day, and pray every night. All I have is faith I will figure it out. For now, my mom is doing well and depending on the out turn she might not need her uterus out. I will be told by this summer if I need laser treatment or not. No matter what, I will be fine and I will take care of my family as best I can. Sometimes it's nice to know you're not alone though, and when I saw this, even if I don't get it, I feel better knowing I got to tell someone. It's not bottled up inside anymore.

- Name Withheld, PSU Student

3) How Has Cancer Affected My Life?

I bent over the towering sand castle, the drops of glistening, wet sand sliding off the tip of my finger as I ever so gradually increased its towering height. The gentle breeze of the ocean windswept a few stray, sun-bleached hairs across my eyes. I felt the warm, summer sun penetrating my pale, northern European skin, like a warm jacket envelopes you on a chilly night. The sun was as perfect as the summer: always there, smiling down on me and my friends for two glorious summer months while we frolicked in the ocean, built castles on the sand, sailed aboard our racing Sunfishes, whispering glorious girlie tales to one-another on our beach towels. The summer sun was everything wonderful…, for many, many years.

I was 17 when I first noticed something was amiss on (what I thought of as) my tanned back. This small, red, blistering bump was bleeding continuously. I didn't want to say anything to my mother, who was nursing her own mother. My grandmother staunchly refused to live with us after many, many attempts by my mother to include her in our household. Now, here she was, living her remaining few days in my perfectly painted lavender bedroom. As she fought her last few days against the pancreatic cancer that was devouring her tiny frame, she was frailer than a stalk of wheat in a drought, ready to snap at the slightest movement. My mother was overwhelmed, trying to be a daughter, a nurse, a wife. She didn't have time to be a mother that perfect, sunny summer.

The funeral that followed my grandmother's death brought on a strange calm. The inevitability of her demise was certainly no surprise, but the hiatus we all took from living was, I think, our biggest surprise. It was ugly, but life was for the living. Now was the time to revisit discussing this spot on my back.

"I think it's skin cancer, which I've never seen in anyone so young," the surgeon stated. A giant gasp flew from my mouth like a tornado touching down. Did someone just say the C word? "I'm only 17," I thought. "This cannot be happening to me. Cancer doesn't happen to young people. It happens to old, shriveled people like my grandmother."

Two weeks following a biopsy, the pathology report was in: basal cell carcinoma. BCC for short. "The most benign form of skin cancer. You're lucky. Consider this a warning. You have to stay out of the sun," the doctors told me. At 17, and living on the ocean, my life might as well have been over. Well, not to me, that simply wasn't going to happen! Life WOULD resume to normal.

Being the daughter of a man with German/Danish bloodlines, and an Irish/French mother, uneven skin tones were nothing new in our family. The only uniqueness I brought to the table was age; my father, at almost 60, had many, many skin cancer tumors removed. Not only had his ancestry predestined him to a life of pale skin (of which I was determined never to follow in his footsteps), but he spent four years of active duty during WWII on a Pacific Ocean aircraft carrier. Sunscreens were not existent, as were hats. Sunglasses were his only protection from the sweltering, tropical sun.

Fast forward a few years. PSU's Belknap dorm was home for me then. After one particularly late spring snowstorm, the day was filled with a blue sky that reminded me of the layers of the Caribbean ocean - blue's so vivid that you needed sunglasses just to be able to focus on its bright beauty. Gym short bottoms and bikini tops were the attire for the day…, and of course, my trusty reflector. An album cover lined with tin foil. A pasty-white girl's best friend. Like an alcoholic's drive for liquor, my insatiable thirst was for some pigment! Tan was beautiful and I wanted to be tan, no matter that my skin tone never went to that creamy, tanish-brown hue…, but only red, or something close to it.

Occasionally, as the years ticked along, those red, blistering sores would appear on other parts of my body. Chest. Shoulders. Upper arms. Lower back. Leg. Forehead. The treatment was all the same: an incision of a few inches (the size dependent on the skill of the physician), or a blast from a liquid nitrogen gun. One or two a year. I was now paying for the sun-worshipping sins of my youth.

When I was in my mid-thirties, cancer reared its ugly head again in our family, this time with my sister. When I answered the ringing phone in September of 1998, her cries sank to the depths of my heart; something was really, really wrong. Eleven years older than I am, she was always the one in control, always knew what was best or right. Her frantic phone call revealed a mass in her breast. It was one of the scariest moments of my life, like sitting in a rollercoaster car at the top of the tallest peak, in that instant just before the big drop. How could my in-control sister not be in control? "I'm so upset. Can you do some research for me,"she begged? Feeding into her personality, I locked myself away in a home office, and immersed myself (via my dial-up, antiuqe modem of the day) in cancers of the breast, just like I knew she would do if it were me. Within 12 hours, I had more data, clinical trials, surgical options and pharmaceutical possibilities than the American Cancer Society. Within two days, she had her preferred action plan mapped out, and instructed her physician how to proceed. Now, THIS was my sister in action. Controlling, decisive, driven. She now had the tools to make her moves. And only my sister could have negotiated something this amazing with the reconstructive surgeon: since a nipple didn't actually do anything, she bargained for an eyelift, instead of a nipple. Only MY sister.

In the year 2000, I was 39. I had a newborn, a 1 year old and a 4 year old. My father, while vacationing in Florida, found a lump in his armpit. He was shortly thereafter diagnosed with stage IV melanoma, an extremely aggressive skin cancer. He immediately returned home to CT and began a year of Interferon treatments (think radiation). Since I lived in southern NH, I watched him, from afar, follow a regimen that was supposed to help stave off the monster disease that had devoured my grandmother. How could this toxic chemical that made him so sick make him better? After a year of treatment, he was cancer free for a very short time before the evil demon had metastasized to his brain. Even then, he fought gallantly until his intestines ruptured. This was a secondary problem associated with the use of heavy steroids, prescribed to reduce the swelling at the localized size of cancer treatments. It was then that he decided to give in to the monster. A colostomy bag strapped to his side in a bleach-and-death-scented hospital room, he said his goodbye's to us, begged his doctors to be as kind to him as they were to animals and put him out of his misery. The lesson for those of us that remained behind? Dying peacefully is a gift you make sure you give someone you love when the end is imminent.

Over the last nine years, my skin tumors have continued, progressing from the more benign basal cell to the more invasive squamous cell carcinoma. In the last two years, I've had my eyelids resectioned four times, with skin grafted from the inside of my thighs. I am on a first name basis with my oculo plastic surgeon, a specialty I didn't even know existed 24 months ago! She and I talk about our son's hockey games as she has me count backwards from 10, under the bright lights of Tufts/NE Medical Center's Eye Center Surgery Center operating room. She repairs the ugly cuts the surgical dermatologist just completed slicing from my eyelids. I'm on a first name basis with him too, but I like his surgical assistant better. Donald is a 55-year old Haitian who has dreadlocks and sings reggae. What's not to like about that, as you're about to undergo an excruciatingly painful procedure on your eyelids? Plus, he always gives me extra lidocaine when the pain gets really bad.

My risk for developing melanoma (like my father) is astronomically high given the familial skin, breast and pancreatic cancers that run in my family. Now, my boys are 15, 13 and 11, and there's not a day that goes by that I don't think about having to say goodbye to them. I share my skin cancer story with anyone who will listen. I share my story with the students in the 7th grade where I am a classroom assistant. When the science unit on the atmosphere comes around every year, I want them to see and understand the effects of the sun; I want them to know that the sun is as evil as it is wonderful; I want them to understand that sunscreen has a permanent role in their life. And I "preach" the religion of moderate sun exposure when I can. For example, when I was in Sears Optical Department, I overheard an older teenager telling his father he's never worn sunglasses. I kindly interrupted the father/son conversation and chimed in with my story. If I can prevent another 18-year old from making my mistakes, it is my responsibility to do so.

I try to make a difference. When I'm not a mother, wife, sister, employee, student, daughter, daughter-in-law, I do what I can to publicize and fundraise. I walk the cancer fundraiser walks. I send out letters to my neighbors for the American Cancer Society. I lather my kids (and their friends) with sunscreen again, and again, and again. I make everyone wear hats and shirts at the beach. We buy hospice angels at Christmas. I buy pink breast cancer anythings. This ever-present disease has lurked at every corner of my personal life. I will never live my life without it. I pray I have a full life, and I do everything I can to make sure my kids don't have to fight this fight, or say goodbye to their parent the way I had to say goodbye to mine.

- Name Withheld, PSU Student

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