Nia Meadows: When I was 4, my mother had a malignant sarcoma tumor
My mom got lucky and her cancer went away, but others, like young James Ragan, are not
"Until 20" is a documentary that looks at how James' determination inspires us to live more fully
Editor’s Note: Nia Meadows is a high school sophomore and an assistant producer on the film “Until 20.” Her mother, Geraldine Moriba, is an executive producer of program development and vice president of diversity and inclusion for CNN Worldwide. She is also a filmmaker and co-director of this documentary. Follow her on Twitter @GeraldineMoriba. “Until 20” premieres at the Austin Film Festival in Texas on Friday, October 30. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
The day before my fourth birthday, my mom moved away from our family. We celebrated her last day in New York at a pottery class painting piggy banks with my friends. I was too young to understand that she was leaving us. This party was her goodbye. I also didn’t understand that it might be the last birthday I would ever share with her.
My mother had a malignant sarcoma tumor growing along the radial nerve in her right arm. She was told she had maybe six months to live. She was moving to Houston to receive treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center.
Our visits to Houston were super fun – we did things like visiting the zoo and museums. But what I remember best is wearing gloves to “help” my mom clean the chemotherapy port in her chest. Or the time she let my older brother and I cut off all her hair. I laughed, thinking her bald head looked like my uncle’s. Didn’t every kid do this? It all seemed perfectly normal to me.
I didn’t know her hair was falling out because of chemotherapy. Sometimes when she went to get treatment, we waited in the kids’ playroom at the hospital. I thought that was fun, too. I thought all kids used words like chemotherapy and radiation.
My mom says that her oncologist told her that she hit the lottery when she was diagnosed with cancer and that she might hit it again if she was cured. My mom was lucky. She hit the jackpot twice. After living away for eight months, she came home. I truly didn’t understand how close I came to losing my mom.
Her recurring checkups over the years that followed seemed routine. It was only when she started making a documentary called “Until 20” about a teenager with a rare cancer that everything became clear.
That person was James Ragan. At 13, he was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma tumor in a bone in his right leg. James and my mom both had aggressive tumors that fall under the classification of sarcoma or connective tissue cancers. They both underwent many of the same treatments at the same hospital. They even had some of the same doctors.
Yet at the end of the day, they had different results. Unfortunately, James’s tumor metastasized from his leg to his lungs. Their doctors still can’t explain why my mom’s tumor responded to treatment and his didn’t. There are no answers.
Watching my mother make this film has been an awakening experience for me.
There is too little research on rare cancers and even less research on childhood cancer. Cancer is the second leading cause of death in children ages 1-14, exceeded only by accidents. Today, there are targeted cancer therapies that successfully cure certain cancers. However, kids with cancer are not the first patients to get these drugs; they are the last.
James never let his disease quench his determination to excel at everything he wanted to achieve – golf, education, relationships and his advocacy work. He supported Sunshine Kids, where he served on the board, and then became a special ambassador with The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, helping to lobby Congress for funding for pediatric cancer research. Still wanting to do more, he launched the Triumph Over Kid Cancer Foundation. All of this while he was still a teenager.
As my mom made this film, I could see the impact it had on her life. It gave her purpose. What I didn’t realize was that it would change my life, too. James’ unrelenting determination inspires me to take the most out of every day, because tomorrow is never certain. Even when his days were limited, he never lost his drive and determination to be the best version of himself.
How would you live if you knew you only had a year to live? It only takes one person to inspire you to be a better person. Maybe it’ll be James Ragan for you. For me, it’s my mom.