Beach wellness – Your story, your voice

CSCRB program director Nancy Lombardo; CSCRB kids coordinator Jill Gray; Aurora Khatibi, Palos Verdes High, Alexander Kowal, Redondo High; co-sponsor Dr. Robert Nolan; Kristina McKibbin, North High; Lauren Calderon, Long Beach Polytechnic High School; and CSCRB CEO Paula Moore. (Not present — Christina Acuna, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School.)

Dozens of South Bay middle and high school students with family members suffering from or lost to cancer submitted essays about their experiences to the second annual “Your Story, Your Voice” teen essay contest sponsored by Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach.

“The contest serves to raise awareness and to be an outlet for teen voices,”  CSCRB kids coordinator Sharon Feigenbaum said.

This year’s sponsors were Dr. Robert Nolan, whose daughter Rebecca won last year’s essay contest and Mary Kehrl, a cancer survivor and longtime advocate of literacy and educational programs for children.

The five finalists received prize money totaling $5,000.

The finalists were 1. Kristina McKibbin of North High, Torrance; 2. Laura Calderon, Long Beach Polytechnic High School; 3. Alexander Kowal, Redondo Union High School; 4. Aurora Khtibi Garrity, Palos Verdes High School; and 5. Christina Acuna, Palos Verdes Peninsula High School.

CSCRB hosts its annual fundraiser, Celebrate Wellness on Sunday, June 24, 3 – 7 p.m. at the South West Botanic Garden in Palos Verdes. The event features live music, tastings from stellar local eateries, breweries and wine. 21 and over. Tickets for the event are $150 per person. (310) 376-3550 or 


Fighting the battle

I learned every corner of Torrance Memorial Medical Center: every gift shop, elevator, vending machine

by Kristina McKibbin, North High School

My mom grew up in Canada. She was an outstanding student who loved school, as well as being part of the marching band. She moved to the United States and earned a degree from Cal State Long Beach. Then she got a job in TV production and met my father

After that, things went downhill.

In her mid 20s, she was told she had a cancerous brain tumor. Doctors gave her a 5 percent chance of survival. She began slowly getting weaker, but never giving up. Due to the radiation she was told she would not be able to have kids, which broke her heart. Her

surgeon removed the tumor, along with a small portion of her brain, and replaced it with

plastic filler. My mom was said to be cancer free. Not long after that, my mother and father married. Ten years later, they received unexpected news. My mother was pregnant. I was followed by my brother. Not long after my brother was born, the doctors discovered that the plastic filler put in place of the tumor years before, had caved in and become infected. She had to undergo numerous surgeries, and was in and out of hospitals throughout my childhood.

When I was in second grade we were driving back from dinner, when she began to experience double vision — a symptom she gets at random times, even to this day. The car crashed and I was in the front seat when the car bag exploded. My dad knew she could no longer drive. Times like these made me wonder what was going on with my mom. Was this normal? Are all moms like this?

Elementary school was especially hard because of countless days and nights in the

hospital. I learned every corner of Torrance Memorial Medical Center: every gift shop, elevator, vending machine, waiting room, game room, and even the grand piano where my family would listen to the peaceful melodies played by the various pianist. Being so young, I had no clue

what was happening. Families in waiting rooms, getting tragic news of their loved ones and then

completely breaking down right there in front of my eyes. This made think I

could get this same news of my mother at any time. My grades dropped, and I

was no longer the cheerful kid I had been. Day and night all I thought about was my

mom’s wellbeing. One year she was in the hospital for five months, including

Halloween and Thanksgiving. We decorated her room accordingly and brought all of her favorite foods. We spent every second we could with her, since we never really knew when it would be our last.

It wasn’t until I began middle school that I began to understand what cancer was and all

that my mom had been going through. She was no longer having major

surgeries, just a few facial reconstructions from time to time. However, due to her years of constant struggle, she was no longer the same. My father, brother, and I had become personal

caregivers. Helping her use the restroom, making her food, helping her to bed. Things that

mothers typically do for their toddlers, I was now doing for her. She no longer looks as she did before, now with numerous scars covering her scalp and face, a tiny amount of thin black and gray hair on the bottom half of her head, and weighing 60 pounds. She has become a completely different person, and so have I.

Her experience has shaped me into the person I am today. While she may not have been

the typical mother figure seen on TV, she has taught me things I will never forget. She has taught

me to never give up. That things may not always go as planned, but you need to make the most

of the cards you have been given. That you need to cherish every moment with your loved ones,

because at any moment, they could disappear.

Alexander Kowal, far right, with Sheree Aguirre, left, and his mother Diana Johnson. Photo


Ryse up

When Ryse passed away, the news was hard to comprehend because I had just played basketball with Ryse days earlier. Not only that, my mom has cancer

by Alexander Kowal

Redondo Union High School

I had the pleasure of meeting, and developing a bond with Redondo High basketball player Ryse Williams (pronounced ‘rise’). He was a 4-time Bay League MVP and led the Sea Hawks to a State Championship. His talent on the court landed him a full ride scholarship to Loyola Marymount University. Even off the court, his influence could be felt throughout the school. He participated in rallies, clubs, and helped out younger kids.

I met Ryse during my sophomore year, when I made the varsity team. Though I was happy about

being on the team, it was hard fitting in because the majority of the team was seniors. Even

though Ryse was a senior, he was able to see my discomfort and decided to take me under his

wing. He made me feel comfortable, gave me pointers, and most of all, he was a good friend.

Naturally, I began to admire Ryse. I marveled at his skill on the basketball court, and

I was amazed by his poise and kindness off the court. He showed no signs of being unhealthy,

and finished his season strong. During the summer, however, he went to the

hospital because he had been having stomach pains. The doctors thought he had

pneumonia, but what they found was much worse. Ryse had a rare form

of renal carcinoma, and it was stage 4. It had been growing for so long that there was no way to

treat it. About two weeks after being admitted to the hospital, on June 24, 2017, Ryse Williams

passed away. The news was hard to comprehend at first, because I had just played basketball

with Ryse days earlier. Not only that, my mom has cancer, and Ryse’s death made that situation more real. I began to question “how much longer do I really have with my mom, and how do I make the most of the moments we share?” It has given me a different view of life, and made me approach every task as if it is my last.

My new mantra is “Ryse Up,” which applies to many situations. One can “Ryse Up” against adversity. One can “Ryse Up” and be great. Most importantly, one can “Ryse Up” and fight against cancer. Now, I “Ryse Up” and practice my game every day for hours. I “Ryse Up” in the morning and tell my mom how much I value her. I “Ryse Up” and do things to help my community. In his honor, I “Ryse Up.”

My mom is one of the most influential people in my life. She is living with stage 4 terminal lung cancer. It all began in August, 2012 when I was 11 years old. My mom had been having trouble breathing, so she went to the hospital to have it checked out. The doctors suspected nothing was wrong, but they did x-rays just to be sure. In these x-rays, they found an unusual mass on her lung. After undergoing multiple scans, doctors discovered that this mass was a tumor, and diagnosed my mom with stage 4 lung cancer. This was a difficult situation to process for an 11 year old. A wave of emotions overcame me; anger, sadness, shock, horror. I was dealing with the real fact that my mom could die at any moment. The doctors gave her one year to live, possibly four if she responded well to chemo.

It is 2018 and my mom is still alive and kicking. There are days when she is so full of energy and life that I forget that she is sick, but there are other days where the combination of chemo and the disease have her bedridden, and have me praying that she is okay. Though I try to be as patient as possible with her, I am a teenager, and I still have disputes with my mom. When I am frustrated with her, it makes me sad because then I think to myself “will my anger be the last thing my mom sees?” Especially after Ryse’s death, I learned how unpredictable cancer can be, and I have to deal with the fear and anxiousness that my mom might not be awake when I check on her every morning. Now, I have to cherish everything about my mom; the advice she gives, all the moments I have, and the memories I create.

Her favorite play is “Hamilton” by Lin Manuel Miranda, because she finds power in the message and lyrics relayed in most of the songs. I now love “Hamilton” and find great power and meaning in the songs. I relate the lyrics to my mom’s situation. I will “not throw away my shot” with her, and I will enjoy every moment I have left. I will be sure to “tell her story” to anyone who will listen. My mom acts as a living reminder to not take the little things in life for granted, and to value my loved ones for as long as I have them.

I recently watched a documentary about writer Joan Didion and how she deals with grief. She stated, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.” One cannot prepare oneself for the grief and sadness wrought by this awful, deadly disease. One can simply try one’s best to cope. Seeing the effects of cancer around me has also given new reality to the words “death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes

and it takes” (from Hamilton).

My mom’s illness has made me worry about not only her, but all of my loved ones. Through all the negativity and sadness, it has changed my perspective, about life. I understand now that life is short, and things can change at any moment, so one should live life to the fullest. I also approach everything differently. I work my hardest to make the world around me a better place to “Ryse Up.”  I treat my loved ones with more respect and spend every moment with them as if it were my last. All in all, the death and sorrow around me caused by cancer have given me a greater appreciation for the value of life.

My name is Alexander Kowal. I am a 16 year old student attending Redondo Union High school, and this is my story.



comments so far. Comments posted to may be reprinted in the Easy Reader print edition, which is published each Thursday.