Capes and Cancer
By Alina Yu
Coming of age is a painful process for all of us—even superheroes. In my story, I learn to embrace that pain and find a few superpowers along the way.
“Is he strong? Listen bud! He’s got radioactive blood!” I belt, with as much might and musical talent as tiny lungs can muster. Technicolor frames of spandexed heroics light up the box TV’s screen, and I launch off the bottom bunk into a web-slinging frenzy against imaginary baddies. I’m nine, and I am Spider-Man.
Growing out of my days of make-believe, I still try to hold onto that hope that I’m not so different from my childhood hero. After all, we share a lot in common: our home in the big apple, our nerdiness, our radioactive blood. But I’m older now, and as adults begin to reveal what happened to my friends in the pediatric ward who left sooner than I, it’s becoming clear to me that I’ll have to start letting go of that hope. This leads to the first great realization of my life: Spider-Man and I may share radioactive blood, but it gave Peter Parker superpowers—and me? Cancer. I’m 14, my friends are dead, and I’m nothing like Spider-Man.
I don’t have heroes anymore. But “Patient Ambassador” sounds almost like a super alter-ego, doesn’t it? Like someone who comes swinging into battle, stylized “PA” emblazoned in spandex, cape flapping. Well, that’s the opposite of how I felt when I was asked to be one for Clippers Chasing Cures, a walkathon for the hospital I was treated in. They wanted me to rally support for the walk with a speech about my experiences, but I’m 15 now and I haven’t exactly done a whole lot of saving. Today’s the walk, and I’m terrified and convinced nothing I do will matter. But they told me they needed me, and I tell myself I have to try.
I rehearse my speech in my head ceaselessly as I near the stage. Having lost my left femur to cancer, each step—each moment my leg’s precarious mess of allografts and screws meets the floor—brings a reminder of weakness, as if my own body is telling me I can’t. Face to face with hundreds of my peers, I’m about to admit that weakness. But, somewhere through the fog of paranoia and self-doubt, I know it’s not my own fears that matter in this moment, but the fears of everyone I’m advocating for—the friends I couldn’t save, the friends I haven’t met yet, and the friends who still need saving.
So I pour my heart out.
As I step down from the podium, I’m instantly met with crushing relief and a tidal wave of friends and strangers alike who tell me I inspired them, that they want to help. We set out for the shore and begin the walk. Gazing at the skyline, I can still feel the slight wobble as my left sneaker hits the pavement. This time though, it brings a reminder of strength—a testament to the fact that adversity isn’t weakness, and that anybody can be a hero. By the end of the walk, we had raised over $20,000 for kids who’re just like how I’d been, and I feel like I’ve saved someone today.
Since that day, I’ve gained the confidence to keep helping others, even, and especially, on the days it seems nothing I do matters. I’ve learned that it’s okay to face loss, to be scared, to not have super-strength or even two normal legs. My voice moved crowds and galvanized hearts that day, and I’m sure now that I can and will use that voice for good. That said, I’m still not a superhero—I haven’t found the time to sew together my cape and super-suit yet—but I wear my alter-ego of Patient Ambassador with pride. The second great realization of my life was that radioactive blood gave me cancer and superpowers—the compassion, resilience, and strength to make a difference. I’m 17, and I am Patient Ambassador.
I wrote this piece mostly in caffeine-fueled bursts at 3AM. It’s a collection of some of my fondest memories and some of my darkest held together by the lessons they taught me. It’s inspired by all the real-life superheroes I still need to properly thank: the doctors, nurses, hospital teachers, volunteers, family and friends. I’m infinitely grateful, and I hope that I’m using this second chance they gave me in a way that makes them proud.
Alina Yu is a senior in high school with a passion for writing, policy and language. She's a proud cancer survivor and daughter of Chinese immigrants telling her story.