Leah Vann: Loss of identity in cancer narrative
January 12, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Tyler Trent’s death struck a cord in me.
It’s one thing to lose your life at 20 years old, but it’s another thing to leave this world with the words "cancer patient" or "super fan," next to your name, rather than being known for what you would've become.
It was something I feared at 15 years old, and Trent, although he touched the lives of many, will never see life beyond it.
Trent became a beloved character in college football this season. As a fan of the Purdue University football team, Trent's dedication was first recognized as the kid who camped outside Ross-Ade Stadium for front-row seats to the season opener against the University of Michigan.
He got his photo taken with Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm, and a story in the Lafayette Journal & Courier revealing his cancer illness.
The boy dressed from head to toe in Purdue gear became a national sensation. As an aspiring sports journalist, he got to live out his wildest dreams: writing for the IndyStar, guest starring on ESPN with Scott Van Pelt and being a guest of honor at Purdue's upset victory over Ohio State.
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Beyond his fandom and disease, Trent was a star student with a near-perfect SAT score who earned the Presidential Scholarship to attend Purdue.
Trent's positivity throughout his third bout with osteosarcoma touched people's hearts, including mine. When he passed away Jan. 1, a nation felt it.
But, as I mourn the death of Trent, the cancer patient, I mourn the death of Trent, the person he never got to be beyond the disease. And I refuse to accept that his sole purpose on this earth was to be the face of young adult cancer and football fandom.
I was diagnosed with Leukemia as a sophomore in high school. After 10 months of rigorous chemotherapy and a transplant, I was declared cancer free.
Before I was diagnosed, I was a straight-A student, varsity track athlete and junior varsity volleyball player. People knew me for my work ethic, outgoing personality and sense of humor.
After that, I was Leah Vann, the girl with cancer or the cancer survivor. Sometimes, I was declared the, "strongest person people knew," only because of my disease, which was a staggering diagnosis given that my father passed away from the same leukemia when I was 4.
I embraced it initially. The starting running back on our football team, Johnathan Gray, a National Gatorade Player of the Year Award recipient, said I was his inspiration on the field in a post-game interview, and my story appeared in Sports Illustrated. I even lived out my dream of meeting the Dallas Cowboys as my Make-A-Wish.
People honored me in their bike rides or races to raise money for cancer nonprofits. I fundraised and organized a team for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society's Light the Night Walk for two years in a row.
Butm I felt lost in being a sensationalized face of triumph and longed to find out who Leah Vann was or wanted to be. I thought about sports writing, since I kept a running blog throughout my treatment that chronicled the events of my favorite sports teams, rather than updating much on my health.
Then, I thought my sole purpose in life was to become an oncologist and cure cancer as revenge for taking away my youth and my father.
I didn't hesitate to tell people why I was taking premedical courses in college, but I also saw the fresh start and grown-out hair as an opportunity to not identify as a cancer survivor first. I became that funny, outgoing girl again.
I dabbled in new things like running half-marathons and writing for the student newspaper. I embraced my Jewish faith, joining a Jewish sorority with volunteer opportunities and people to worship with.
Something that was missing was my work ethic toward medical school. I wasn't passionate about my science classes, where I traded study hours to write for my student newspaper, The Daily Texan's sports section.
I also didn’t want to volunteer at a hospital, a place I had lived in for 10 months.
I walked by the communications school, wondering if it would be wrong for me to give up medicine and pursue being a sports journalist?
I thought I was giving up who I was or who I was meant to be by not going to medical school. But there was no feeling compared to the thrill of seeing my name printed in the newspaper. I could spend all day at the Texas Relays, watching future U.S. Olympians round the track and telling their stories.
If I had to work in a lab, I'd rather it be a press box overlooking a football field. If I was going to make a difference in people's lives, I wanted it to be giving them a voice through the written word.
Trent and I shared the same dream of telling sports stories and making our own.
And I can’t help but think he lost more than the life he was living — he lost the life he never got to have.