Reaching for Air: A Young Woman's Journey with Brain Cancer (R.I.P.)
Usually the question, “what’s your biggest challenge in life?” is met with an abstract answer about personality quirks or limiting beliefs that keep a person from achieving their potential. But when I asked Dima Azzam what her biggest challenge in life was, her answer was simple: breathing.
Her answer isn’t a metaphor. Quite literally, the physical act of breathing is Dima’s biggest daily challenge. Dima was diagnosed with a rare case of brain cancer at the age of three, and she’s been beating the odds ever since.
I first met Dima at a party my parents held a few months back. I’d heard about her from her mother, but not nearly enough to fit the size of her character in person. Dima was sitting at a table across from ours, and I was making my obligatory rounds to greet all the party guests when we shook hands. Her presence was strong and demanded attention, so I promised I’d be back later to chat. True to my word, I found her midway through the night to continue talking. My first observation of Dima was her directness. She isn’t afraid to explore her curiosity, even with a perfect stranger. I found this refreshing in a world exhausted by social fluff. She bulldozed questions at me, and one by one, I answered them. Then I gave her the floor.
When Dima was three, her parents noticed she was sleeping a lot more than usual, and that she was losing a lot of weight. After being tossed from specialist to specialist, a pediatrician from Syria finally pinpointed Dima’s sudden changes: brain cancer. After he diagnosed her, he advised her family to move to Houston, where the best doctors were. So, they packed up and left to for seven months while she received chemotherapy treatments. They soon after moved back to El Paso, Texas, where Dima has been ever since.
Dima is not your typical twenty-three year old. For starters, she’s hooked up to a machine that helps her breathe. This doesn’t stop her from having one of the boldest personalities I’ve yet to run into, nor does it limit her from living a full life. When Dima asked me to write her story, I told her I didn’t just want to talk about the cancer because the more I learned about her, the less the sickness defined her. She agreed.
The first surprise was that she was Palestinian American. I’d assumed she was Lebanese because of her accent, but I was wrong. We talked about what it was like growing up as a Palestinian in the states, and how that naturally separated her from her peers, (as if she needed anything else to draw attention to her case, she sighed). “People used to say I had a mental disability. I hated it. I wanted so badly to tell them what was wrong with me, but they never asked. They just assumed.”
Thirteen was a turning point for Dima. It was the year she got her period, which as an Arab-American, automatically trimmed her social liberties. Even though her mother had been explaining what a period was since she was nine, it didn’t stop Dima from being terrified the day it happened. She was napping next to her little brother when she woke up in a pool of red. They both thought she was dying. When her mother came to the scene, she calmly explained it was just her period. But the terror of discovering her menstrual cycle was the least of her worries. From that day forward, Dima was no longer allowed to show bare skin in tank tops, nor was she allowed to hang out with boys.
“I felt like this blood took away my childhood.”
While her younger brother was out every weekend without question, she had to endure an interrogation from her father each time she made plans. “My brother was the king of the house.” She joked. Her mother, she went on to share, is her role model. “My mom has a PhD; she’s a very smart woman. She always treated my brother and I equally.”
Then we talked about religion. Common to Dima’s nature, she wasn’t hesitant to admit that she isn’t religious at all. “People don’t get to decide they’re good just because they follow religion,” she began, “That’s stupid. Your religion isn’t what makes you pure.” I asked what her parents thought of her religious denunciation. “My mother actually advised me against the veil when I became of age. She was worried people would judge me for it, and that it would affect me when I was looking for a job later on.” She paused. “But anyway, I would never wear because I don’t find it stylish.” Then she concluded matter-of-factly: And I think it silences the woman behind it, which I hate.”
We segued into my book and how it covers taboos in Lebanese culture. “Don’t get me started,” she shrugged, “I like Lebanon because it’s pretty, but it’s not very open minded. People are so nosy there.” We continued to poke fun at our parallels as Arabs in American society. We talked about the paragon of being a virtuous Arab woman, and the pressure from our relatives to get married. “Ouff,” she exhaled, “My grandpa’s been bugging me about it since I turned twenty. Seriously dude! I’m so young!”
"Oh, and marriage. I don't believe in it." She added non-nonchalantly as she went on to explain that she'd rather be chosen independently everyday by someone who wasn't upholding a religious or civil vow.
The longer I spoke to Dima, the more I was surprised by our parallels in thought. Apart of our Arab-American upbringing, there wasn't much to bridge our histories together. But I realized that's because Dima is not a result of surviving cancer. Surviving cancer is a result of Dima. Her resilience, and her ability to form perspectives out of the "bigger picture" despite the limiting lens of her illness and her traditional Arab surrounding, astounded me.
Our conversation flowed effortlessly because I didn’t have to put up a front with her. There were no territories that were off limits to ask about. Her message to people who are healthy but unhappy? “Don’t take life for granted. Even car accidents are not the end if you survive them,” She carried on. “Listen, yes, I have brain cancer. Chemotherapy has made it very hard for me to breathe. But when I was diagnosed, the doctor told us it was a miracle that I was alive. My life is not a fight, it’s a triumph!”
Her favorite books? The Anne Frank diaries, because “my parents grew up in Lebanon during the war. That’s where they developed their strength,” she grinned. I thought of asking her where she got hers, but I realized the answer was right in front of me.