Editor finds new perspective in happiness

My entire life I have been a high-achiever. I was the girl labeled “gifted” in elementary school and put in a program with “the smart kids.” I was the girl who dedicated at least two hours of study to every test, dutifully rewriting all of my notes and memorizing them verbatim. And I was the girl in seventh grade who actually called my mom in tears because I had received a 96 percent on a test when I had been so sure I was going to get a perfect score. In short, up until my junior year of high school, my grades had dominated my life, and I had let them because I believed a straight-A average was the only path to happiness.

But, in the summer before my junior year, my idea of happiness was crushed by two words: malignant tumor.

My eighth grade sister was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, in July 2013. In the following year, she faced 40 weeks of chemotherapy, 20 of which were spent in the hospital, a five hour knee-replacement surgery to remove the tumor and then extensive physical therapy to regain muscles and movements in her knee. Then there were the mental side effects that come with cancer—realizing that she was not invincible and coping with the fact that she could die in a year without knowing if there is an afterlife or how she would be remembered.

When someone you are close to is diagnosed with cancer, the worst part about it is realizing how powerless you are. The chemotherapy was not going to work just because I told it to. I could not make the tumor magically disappear. And, I could not turn back time till before the diagnosis. The only thing I could do was be there for my sister whenever she needed me or whenever she began to get lost in the dark sea of her own thoughts.

The majority of my time was spent sitting next to my sister in the chair in her room talking, trying to make her laugh and forget about the present reality. But, as the school year started, I suddenly was faced with two conflicting needs. On one hand, I wanted to be there for my sister whenever she was home from the hospital. On the other hand, I still had that same desire to succeed in school. Most days, I spent the period from after school to about 7 p.m. with my sister and family and did not even look at my homework until 7:30 p.m.

For the first-time in my life, my path to surface happiness had led me astray. Straight-A’s could not cure my sister.

After a particularly painful night of studying for AP physics and pre-calculus honors tests the next day, I sought out my social worker, and she gave me the most valuable advice I’ve received in my life.

She asked me: “Ultimately when you look back on this year, are you going to be happy you studied for that physics test instead of spending time with your sister, or are you going to be happy that you were there for your sister in a time when she needed you most of all?”

The answer was easy: being there for my sister. The depressing part about this story is that it took something as drastic as my sister getting cancer for me to learn the value of perspective.

My sister has been in remission for three months, and I have yet to regain the same study skills and dedication to my grades. I still work hard and aim for good scores, but I am not afraid to put down the textbook to eat dinner with my family and hear about their days. I no longer think twice about studying less for a test in order to take my two sisters to a movie, or go watch my youngest sister’s soccer game.

My previous view of academics was not an anomaly. We go to Adlai E. Stevenson High School. We learn in an environment that breeds high achievers. And, while I do not wish what my sister and my family have gone through on anybody in the world, I think we can all benefit from gaining a little bit of perspective.

Without a doubt, I can say that I hate cancer. Yet, by bringing me to my darkest point, it revealed a path that has brought me the most happiness that I have had in over three years. Life is all about perspective, and if you can remember that, you can get through anything.