At the end of December, Raquel Coronell Uribe was expecting to relax at home during winter break after a demanding semester during her senior year at Harvard University.
But deep down, Coronell Uribe, who was diagnosed with leukemia at 16 and just weeks ago reached the five-year mark from the end of treatment, sensed that something was not quite right.
When she returned home, her longtime oncologist confirmed after a bone marrow procedure that Coronell Uribe would again be “ship[ping] off to war.”
“The leukemia that had been so unlikely to return was back with a vengeance, leading a military insurgency on my until-then-at-peace bone marrow,” Coronell Uribe wrote in a moving essay about her diagnosis published in the Crimson Sunday that has resonated widely and drawn an outpouring of support.
After receiving the devastating news, Coronell Uribe wrote the essay to convey “what it’s felt like” since learning her leukemia had returned after five years in remission.
“Ready to devour me from the inside out, just when I thought it never would,” she wrote in the essay, published the day before she began a new round of chemotherapy.
Coronell Uribe began the essay with a couplet from “Espergesia” by Peruvian poet César Vallejo that reads — “I was born on a day when God was sick.” She detailed how her life as a teenager was altered by her cancer diagnosis, forcing her to trade in her “school uniform for a coarse hospital gown.”
While her friends “snuck off to parties, I snuck out to the garden of the hospital where I was forced to stay inside for weeks at a time receiving life-saving chemotherapy,” she wrote. “When my peers were looking at colleges where they could spend the next four years, shopping around for a future, I was wondering whether I would have one at all.”
“Not that the treatment ever felt life-saving. At times it was more like life-crushing, life-sucking, life-suppressing even, with pangs of pain sharper and more bitter than the cancer itself,” Coronell Uribe wrote. “This torment dominated my life for two years.”
Her waist-length hair fell out. It grew back in “fuzzy patches” then fell out again. She tripped over her own feet.
“Then, one day — it was all over. I had my last chemo and got to ring the glorious bell that marked the end of treatment,” Coronell Uribe wrote, detailing how her hair grew back, she was accepted to Harvard, and she ascended to the role of president of the Crimson.
“Every month when I had to get a blood count to make sure the leukemia hadn’t returned, I held my breath in fear. Somehow, the results kept coming back clean,” she wrote. “But I always felt — I always knew — that I was living on borrowed time.”
After five years in remission, she was now considered “cured” — “an odd term that meant that my chances for relapse were so statistically low I was now considered fully free of the disease that had haunted me for seven years,” she wrote.
But she didn’t feel free. During the fall semester, she struggled to make it to class, complete her schoolwork, sleep at night, and eat three meals a day. She felt needles in her shoulder so “sharp that I ground my teeth to dust, gulped down more painkillers than I care to admit, and ended up at the emergency room not once but twice.”
Her oncologist told Coronell Uribe it was unlikely the cancer was returning but told her he would perform a bone marrow aspiration “just to be safe,” she wrote.
“The whole thing was supposed to be a calming, if excessive, precaution,” she wrote, one that would allow her to “return to school with peace of mind for my very last semester.”
Forty-eight hours later, Coronell Uribe learned that her cancer had returned.
“How do you begin to think about grieving for yourself?” she wrote.
“There’s no way to talk or write about illness; none that is good enough, anyway. You can try to describe the pain to the reader, you can detail the battles of the war, but you cannot show the reader the pain itself,” she wrote. “You cannot make them understand the pain of having to fight a years-long battle with cancer not once but twice before your 25th birthday.”
The day before chemotherapy begins, the “palm tree fronds seem greener, the sun warmer, the light reflecting off the pool a little brighter,” she wrote.
“It’s as if the world is taunting you, reminding you that it’s your last day of freedom before that life-saving poison exiles you to a dark room or a hospital bed, or generally anywhere near a receptacle to weather its harsh side effects,” she wrote. “Today, I am feeling this again.”
Coronell Uribe ended her essay by noting that she has no “neat conclusion to offer,” but instead referenced the poem she began her piece with.
“I was born on a day when God was sick,” she wrote. “Maybe he was battling with himself, then, too.”