Survivors celebrate the gift of life

July 27, 2012 | by

If you’re a cancer survivor in California, you’re far from alone. Nearly 1.6 million men, women and children in the state are living through and beyond cancer.

Photo of Hannah Komai

Hannah Komai inspires other patients at Cancer Survivors Day (Photo by Fred Lee)

Across the U.S., nearly 13.7 million people — more than the population of Illinois — can call themselves cancer survivors. Each one of those people has a story. Some are stories of victory, while others are chronicles of endurance. Sometimes they’re tales of pain and lives upended. Whatever a survivor’s story, chances are it’s different from life “B.C.” — before cancer.

Every year, City of Hope patients come together at the Sheri & Les Biller Patient and Family Resource Center for Cancer Survivors Day to celebrate their stories. As they talk about their journeys, a word often heard from them is “gift.”

Yes, as in “cancer is a gift.”

“It’s the best thing that ever happened to me because it gave me a purpose,” says Lorraine Ortiz, a 12-year breast cancer survivor.

After her diagnosis, her doctor referred her to a breast cancer support group, where she met women who would become her best friends. Over time, she counseled other patients. She and her support group members also sold blankets, pillows and other crafts they made by hand to raise money for City of Hope’s Child Life program. She still volunteers today.

PHOTOS: National Cancer Survivor's Day Celebration at City of Hope

Hannah Komai, now 22 and preparing to start nursing school, was a typical teen back when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. She entered City of Hope for tough chemotherapy and bonded with another girl who was on the same chemo schedule. “We were hospital sisters,” she says.

Today, her friend’s words and smile stay with her as her profound gift. “I still hear her voice reminding me not to take life so seriously,” Komai says softly. Around her neck, she wears a silver locket containing her friend’s ashes.

For those dealing with the fresh pain and grief of cancer, the idea of the disease as a gift might rightly seem foreign. But gratitude for life and its rich experiences seems universal among survivors.

City of Hope’s chief medical officer, Alexandra M. Levine, M.D., M.A.C.P., has seen how the disease makes patients and their families, friends and medical teams appreciate life. She recently urged survivors at Cancer Survivors Day to hold tightly to that gift, because research is making gains against the disease.

“If you are not yet cured, hang on,” she says, “because there will be a better tomorrow.”

Watch and listen to Hannah Komai talk about her cancer experience in the video below.