I love Christmas. It’s my favourite time of year. I’m 19 years old, and I’ve already celebrated a dozen more Christmases than doctors thought I would see.
In Christian belief, Christmas is all about redemption. Jesus Christ was born to redeem the sins of humanity. For Christians, Christmas symbolizes the ultimate second chance. And I suppose that’s why it means so much to me.
My second chance came when I overcame Bilateral Retinoblastoma. That’s the medical term. My dad, Eric, put it in simpler words.
“You were dealt bad cards from the start, Miss Nat,” he said.
In March 1999, when I was seven months old, I was diagnosed with Q-13 syndrome – which is the reason I appear smaller and am not as physically strong as a “normal” kid.
Some of the side-effects might include Bilateral Retinoblastoma, a genetic form of cancer that affects the back of the eyes and affects about two per cent of Canadian children 14 and under diagnosed with cancer every year. Normally, if the tumours aren’t reached in time, they reach the optic nerve. You could lose your sight. Or even your life.
I had a friend during the early part of my journey named Adrian Malagón, who lost his eyes to this type of cancer. Adrian and I were the first cases to treat this condition using what was then experimental techniques in Canada, which is now standard practice.
The doctors told my mom Irma about how my eyes were delayed in their development. They told her they were going to look out for the tumours until I was seven. If the tumours did not return by that stage, I could keep both my eyes.
Adrian and I both had our own versions of a second chance because we both made it past this age almost at the same time.
My mom would tell me all time that she used to take both of us to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to undergo chemotherapy and Cryotherapy, which uses cold temperatures to treat tumours. I had to go through nine cycles of chemo before the doctors could finally calcify the tumours.
Adrian started his fight against Retinoblastoma a little too late, and he returned to his home country of Venezuela after both of his eyes were removed. But he pulled through, too, and is now 20 years old. I’ve heard he is now a sports reporter.
I’m with him again, in spirit, studying journalism at Humber.
My family always prayed that I would get better. Everyone close to me was affected in one way or another. My mom would always tell me that it is because of me that she decided to accept the job she has now as an Educational Assistant (E.A) in a school for students with physical disabilities.
What happened to me served as an inspiration for her to accept that job, she said, because she had a better understanding of what the kids she now works with went through.
One of my former neighbours made sure I went to the Mass of Our Lady of Guadalupe when I was growing up. She prayed for me in my fight against cancer because she and the rest of my family thought I deserved to keep my eyes.
A miracle happened.
I still have both of them.
We still go to Mass every Dec. 12 so I can renew my commitment to Mother Mary.
Despite spending almost my whole life at Sick Kids hospital, undergoing what seemed like every medical procedure imaginable, despite all the bullying from some of the kids in my school years, I managed to pull through. I never cried when I was small, only occasionally when I dealt with IVs and eye drops.
I may have been dealt bad cards from the start like my dad always tells me. But he also tells me it all depends on how I use those cards because I could end up winning even if I were dealt a two or a three.
From a young age, I always had a strong sense of direction, despite not being able to see very well. It takes a while for me to get used to a new place, but I know my way around once I get used to it.
“You make me feel like nothing is more important than love, passion, perseverance, determination, and optimism,” my mother once said when she was describing my personality.
I may not see very well, but I can write and draw well with help from the software I am using to do my assignments – like Zoom Text and Kurzweil3000.
I am not like any other “typical” 19-year-old girl. I mean, I don’t do any of the thing girls my age do, like going clubbing. I don’t have a job, or a boyfriend. Sure, I’d like to think about those things… someday.
For now, I am happy the way I am.
I have another Christmas.
And I never take those for granted.