“Powerful beyond comprehension”
Julia McBride, ’18, shares powerful lessons from her own fight with cancer during Relay For Life at Loyola
Relay For Life of Loyola University Maryland is proud to be among one of the top fundraising teams in the country. The Loyola community has raised nearly $2.5M since its inception in 2005, when long-time health services director Jeanne Lombardi brought Relay to Loyola’s campus following the loss of her son to Melanoma, in 2004.
Julia was selected as the keynote speaker for the 2018 Relay For Life event at Loyola, and she shared her personal story during the 12-hour fundraising event in March. She agreed for Loyola magazine publish it online to share her powerful words with our broader community.
My name is Julia McBride, and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to speak to you all tonight, and I mean that very literally. At one point in my life, I feared I wouldn’t be able to attend college, let alone my high school graduation.
When I was a junior in high school, before my world was turned upside down, I sat speechless in my biology class as, for the first time, I saw the structure of a cell under a microscope. I was looking at the stitch-work of life, formed from a force that cannot be seen or heard, intrinsically moving and shaping our world.
When I was a senior in high school, exactly five years ago this Monday, those cells took on a very different meaning to me.
“It’s called Medulloblastoma,” an oncologist told me.
My mind raced back to my biology notes, searching for answers. It was a life altering moment, and it felt like the world had stopped turning. I was frozen and numb with fear; I couldn’t cry or laugh. I wasn’t angry. I felt nothing.
Medulloblastoma. Try saying that ten times fast. This word was the beginning of a 16-month journey I never imagined I would have to go through. The first couple of questions I asked my doctors were the obvious ones: “Can I still go to prom?” and “Will I live long enough to be able to get married?” That just shows the priorities of a 17-year-old girl (now that’s scary).
The answers were “yes” to both—and yes, I was going to survive, something that took me a very long time to believe. Every time my doctors would tell me information on survival rates I would say, “OK, but I just don’t believe you; you’re lying to me.” I felt like I had lost myself—and control. Suddenly, I was this person who I did not recognize: a patient, a statistic, a science experiment.
They told me I had a 90% chance of survival. I said “That’s not good enough.” They said, “Well, it would be like an A-,” and I replied, being the overachiever that I am, “I know, that’s not good enough. And what if I’m the 10%?”
I didn’t believe my doctors, because many people are not given the same answers I was, and that is all I knew at the time. My aunt Christine had died of cancer around the time I received my diagnosis, and her struggle was the picture I had painted for myself. But I was fortunate enough that my surgeon could write in giant letters on a whiteboard “CURABLE” when I was struggling to grasp that I would survive the coming months, and eventually return to living a normal life.
My treatment included brain surgery, six weeks of daily radiation therapy, and chemotherapy every six weeks for a year. Surprisingly, brain surgery is actually not as painful as one might think. Honestly, having my wisdom teeth removed was more painful. And there are amazing drugs available that decrease the nausea that was so common not that long ago. My family was there for me every step of the way, serving as my pit crew and cheerleaders.
As a result of my chemotherapy, I did lose my hair. When I came to Loyola my first year, my hair was about two inches long, and I was physically weak. For the first couple months in college, I had to pretend that I wasn’t a freshman, because my body couldn’t handle what a typical college student experiences. I would see everyone else do things so easily, like simply walking upstairs, and I would just be catching up.
I experienced slight hearing loss, and now I have a memory recall and processing delay. School became a struggle I had never known before. I felt defeated, like I was broken. My brain wasn’t working as fast as I wanted it to. This was difficult to accept at first—and still presents challenges each day. I especially want to thank my friends who have helped me through some of my toughest days, often without even knowing it. You all have helped me move forward with life, lifting my spirits often in the simplest ways, and that has made all the difference.
I would like to recognize the heroes in my and others’ fight against cancer: The oncologists (mine was Dr. Gilheeney at Memorial Sloan Kettering, who held my worries so I wouldn’t have to); the surgeons (mine was Dr. Sueidaine at Weill Cornell, who I trusted my life with); the nurses and nurse practitioners, who always made sure that I wasn’t in pain; the radiologists whose precision was vital in my treatment; physical therapists, who brought my body back to me, and many more who made the bad days a little bit better and work each day to help others.
The list could go on. Each of you here tonight plays an incredibly significant role in supporting all of these people.
So how did I get through it all? Well, I took each day as it came, never looking back at the past, and never looking too far into the future, as it still seemed too daunting. During MRIs, I played mind games to stay calm and would imagine that the banging noises were people building a beautiful house around me, or that I was in a spaceship.
I did anything to distract myself to fight the boredom of being home while my friends began their college careers. I decided that I only had to be sick when I felt sick, and when I wasn’t, I focused on things I enjoyed, like painting and reading. I may have been experiencing cancer, but I did not have it—and it did not have me. I would not let it become more than the illness it was, or let it define me.
Every year, about 4,000 children in the United States are diagnosed with brain and spinal cord tumors. Thanks to advances in science and technology, the future of affected children continues to improve. Everyone in this room has likely been affected by cancer in one way or another, be it yourself, a family member, or a friend.
I want to emphasize that early detection is so important in a good chance of survival for any disease. If you have a concern about your health, don’t wait to see a doctor. If you are not getting better, see a different doctor. Do not stop until you have answers.
I realize I have been extremely fortunate because my condition was curable, and this is certainly not the case for everyone. I saw many children in the pediatric patient waiting room at Sloan Kettering who I knew would not be as fortunate as me. Their childhood had been taken from them—and for some, so had their futures. I have decided to tell my story with the hope that each of you might be inspired to make a contribution to continuing this fight. Whether it be a donation, a career choice, volunteering, or spending time with someone you know with cancer, you will change someone’s entire world with even the smallest acts.
I would like to share a few things I learned from my experience…
First, I came to realize that there are only two real things that we are given. We are given experiences with the people around us and a finite amount of time. Your time, not only on this earth, but with the people you love as well, is valuable because of its fleetingness. Everything else is just static noise.
Second, I realized that within every living and material form is an unseen force that is powerful beyond human comprehension. It is there when two friends smile after being reunited, when a seed begins to sprout, or when a snowflake hits the palm of your hand and melts away. This earth is filled with complex patterns and systems that are amazing—if you take a moment to notice them. These systems are imperfect and out of our control, and we ask ourselves, “Why did this happen to me?” Maybe it’s just faulty manufacturing. The cells which form the stitch-work of life, formed from a force that cannot be seen or heard, intrinsically moves and shapes our world in ways we may never understand… and for reasons we may never know.
Lastly, when I was sick, people would tell me I was a hero, an inspiration, all just because I had been diagnosed with a disease that many people are fearful of. I didn’t feel like a hero, because I just showed up. Being a hero is being a part of someone’s journey and striving to make others’ lives better. Everyone can be a hero in this collective fight. Everything we do is connected to someone else’s story.
Had they told me of my condition only 50 years ago, their answers and the plan for my treatment would not have been the same. I am here today, not because of simple answers, but because after many years of research, test trials, and brave patients who volunteered to put their lives in the hands of science, doctors were able to tell me I had a 90% chance of survival. In 1950, the survival rate for my particular condition was only 3%.
Scientists, doctors, and especially the patients who came before me, who were willing to try things that they were not sure would work, are the reason I am here tonight. They gave me the gift of life and peace of mind. I am standing here tonight because they had strength, and they were strong because they had hope.
Be someone who has hope, and the ripple effect on other’s lives will be endless.