Zoe Cappella Cooper is a Seventh Grader at the Salk School of Science in New York City. She’s also a childhood cancer survivor who was treated here at Columbia University Medical Center. She recently won the Scholastic Gold Key Award for Memoir Writing for her piece The Full Potion. The award was richly deserved as she found a unique way to express what she went through as a cancer patient. She and her family graciously allowed us to reproduce the essay here.
The Full Potion
I am a potion. I am a potion like any other potion — a plain color and a calm surface. I am sitting in the back of the science classroom. No one notices me, until I spark and turn bright green and bubbly. And suddenly kids surround me, gaping. Prodding me to see if I will explode again. We are fascinated by potions and their power to explode.
We tell our friends our funny stories to make them laugh. We tell our friends our sad stories to make them cry. Everybody needs these potions and their explosions, or else life gets dull. Sometimes we make our own explosions, but sometimes they are made for us. And there I was, an already-made potion, sitting in the back of my kindergarten classroom.
“I remember how the doctors put an I.V. on my stuffed tiger to make me feel better.”
I don’t remember much about getting cancer. I was four after all. I remember some things. I remember that I was at a Chicago Cubs game when my dad first felt the tumor in my side. I remember how the doctors put an I.V. on my stuffed tiger to make me feel better. I remember that before the surgery, I wasn’t allowed to eat anything but the hospital Jello which was awful. But I was four, and I don’t remember feeling sad or stressed. Through all of the surgeries I had, I was never depressed. It was just my life and I lived with it. I never experienced any awkward questions from anyone. I knew everyone in my Chicago neighborhood, and they knew me.
But New York was different from Chicago. No longer did I live on a block where all of the kids were friends and where there were few cars. No, New York was the land of tall buildings and bustling streets. I think most almost-five-year-olds would be scared. And, I was not a normal almost five year old. Not only was I a small, quiet girl, starting kindergarten at a new school, but I was a small, quiet, half-bald girl who was absent every Friday, starting kindergarten at a new school. Not a good combination if you want to fit in and not be noticed at all.
Most kids didn’t ask me why I was basically bald. They probably assumed I had a super short haircut. But I did get some weird looks because most girls in my class had long hair, and I looked almost like a boy. Kids would look at my hair quizzically, their kindergarten brains trying to make sense of it. In later years, when my friends and I would be poring over our previous yearbooks (and seeing how small and cute we were in earlier years) they would comment on my short hair in my kindergarten year. I’d quickly change the subject. They were my friends, and I had told them about getting cancer (though not in full detail), but I didn’t want to be connected with that girl in the photo. I didn’t want my friends to see someone different when they looked at me. I wanted them to still see the smart, funny, and sometimes quiet girl that I am. Yes, getting cancer is a part of me and it always will be; but when people think of me, I didn’t want them to think of “the girl who survived cancer.” Maybe, at that age, I was ashamed of that part of me and I thought people would say mean things about me. Now, I realize that was foolish, but at that time I just wanted to avoid any awkward conversations or mentions of that time in my life.
The hardest part about getting cancer was the checkups. Through kindergarten, I had to go up to the hospital every Friday. Not only was I poked and prodded, but I had to miss art, which was my favorite subject. I remember that I would come back to school during lunch (which is the absolute worst time to come back to school). I would arrive, and immediately I would be surrounded by curious classmates. For the first few weeks, I would just say that I was sick, or that I had a doctor’s appointment. But after a few weeks, the kids started to realize that they weren’t getting the whole story. I mean, you can’t have a doctor’s appointment every Friday (unless you were me, of course). So, kids being kids, they were curious. They were not being mean. I just wasn’t ready for those kinds of questions. I did not want to be different from the rest of my class. I would hide behind my mom or dad, and give them the job of explaining to my class where I went every Friday.
“It is ironic that I could survive cancer, but not be able to tell my friends the truth.”
It is ironic that I could survive cancer, but not be able to tell my friends the truth. I think that humans don’t really want the pity of others. Humans don’t want their hardships to make them different than others. When something bad happens, humans like to shut themselves up in a little box. During hard times, they don’t want to be the center of attention. Only once they can cope with the hardship themselves, do humans want others to get involved.
It took me a while, but I finally told my good friends where I went every Friday. And as time passed, I didn’t have to go to the hospital as often. Instead of going weekly, I went monthly and then quarterly. So when I came back on Friday, I could say that I slept in, or that I had to go to the dentist. But more and more I didn’t choose that option. I opened up. You can say that I changed as a person. And maybe I did. But I think that it is just time that changed. There are many people whose friends and family die from illnesses. Here I am, griping about overcurious kindergarteners, but it must be truly hard for them. They have to go to work every day and face people’s pity, and what they think are consoling comments. And there is no solution to their sadness. Nothing that can be said or done to help them get over their loss.
Except time. I will never forget about having cancer, just like people will never forget their hardships. But in time I learned how to live with it. People learn to accept that their hardships are an important part of who they are — but not the whole of who they are. The whole is the full potion and not just the explosions. Underneath the surface, the potion has color and sparks and texture. It is not just what is on the surface during the explosions that counts. It is the full potion that matters.
A Patient’s Voice will be a recurring feature spotlighting the childhood cancer experience from the patient’s point of view. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.