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Sara Brenes-Akerman
A Likely Story

Credit: Sara Brenes-Akerman , Sara Brenes-Akerman

Every time I tell someone that my father died it makes them uncomfortable.

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know” is the response I usually get — an answer that I believe is more an apology for having asked than for the event itself. After I assure them that it’s okay, we do our best to speed through it and go back to easier conversation. My father did, in fact, die when I was very young. So, by now, I’ve had to go through these sorts of interactions a fair number of times. I don’t mind them, but it has made it abundantly clear that some things will always be hard to talk about. Some things like cancer.

Just like anyone who read the news over the summer, I was overjoyed when I learned about Penn researchers discovering a new strategy to treat leukemia, how it might also apply to other types of cancer and how, overall, it represents a significant advancement in the search for the cure. I discussed it with my mom — who was thrilled with the fact that it was at my school where the amazing discovery had taken place — and, for about a week, I would mention it to anyone who cared to listen.

Talking about cancer in the context of science is easy. We can cite facts and figures, look up the answers and have something smart to say. Talking about cancer in the context of life is something different altogether.

I didn’t expect it. Facebook chatting with one of my best friends, the last thing that I could’ve anticipated was her telling me about her mom’s illness, how bad it was and how they didn’t “know how much time she has left.” I didn’t know what to say other than how very sorry I was. But, predictably, it felt like an inadequate response. After all, what can you possibly say that does justice to the gravity of such news?

Perhaps noticing my speechlessness, my friend moved on and started discussing something else entirely. Something far less scary and clearly less threatening. I was unsure of how to tell her that I didn’t mean to purposefully avoid the subject; it’s just that I was clueless as to how to handle the news.

The irony didn’t escape me. I not only immediately understood all of the people that had not known what to say whenever I told them about my father but it also struck me as equally ironic that, despite my readiness to discuss the Penn-bred medical discovery, I was unable to confront my friend’s grief. Both were provoked by the very same disease.

Tragedy like this, particularly when it directly affects someone that is close to you, requires a great deal of intelligence — but not the type that would necessarily get you into Penn. The only ways to discuss cancer that I’m remotely familiar with are cheesy movies a la Stepmom and scientific lingo, hence my inability to talk about it in a real world setting. And I have a strong suspicion that I am not alone in my awkwardness.

Youth, inexperience and comfort with books makes it easy to quote scientific discoveries and difficult to speak candidly about life-altering events. It’s a horrible cliche but a true one at that: there are moments that give you perspective and they usually come in the form of unforeseen, sad news that wake you up in an unpleasant manner. I was made to see, as my friend told me something that was critically important to her and I remained practically silent with discomfort, that one set of skills is no more valuable than the other.

It is funny how difficult it can be to see the obvious. How much it can take for someone to realize something that they should have known all along. Someone having cancer will never be an easy subject to talk about, nor will my father’s death, but that is no excuse to avoid discussing either one.

Sara Brenes-Akerman is a College senior from Costa Rica. Her email address is A Likely Story appears every other Thursday.

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