The things that happen: Two boys and cancer

Chapter five: Cancer ghosts

AnchorageApril 23, 2013 

Story by Julia O'Malley | Photos by Marc Lester

Weeks passed as I waited for news about Mitchell Xayapraseuth.

One day in early August my phone buzzed with a text: "Hey in town and cancer free! xD."

A few days later Mitchell and I had lunch with Steve Vue at Pho Saigon in the Dimond Center. The boys piled into one side of a small booth across from me and studied the menus, even though they always ordered the same thing.

"Cancer-free" meant Mitchell's last round of treatment had worked. Next came a long period of wait and see. He would need follow-up appointments every few months for five years, and twice-yearly checkups after that. Same thing for Steve. Steve's chance of recurrence was slightly higher because of the type of cancer he'd had, but odds were good they would both live to be old men and die from something else.

Their hair had grown back. Angles had emerged in their faces in the half-year since I'd met them. Mitchell had a serious girlfriend now. Her name was Eileen. She was Korean. Her parents were strict, Mitchell said. They went to a Christian church. Eileen and Mitchell met as children in tae kwon do, and then met again because they were both in ROTC. Mitchell said he talked to her almost every day while he was getting chemo but they didn't start dating officially until the day his treatment was over.

Our order came. A bowl of pho for Steve. A banh mi sandwich for Mitchell with extra peppers.

I asked Mitchell when he was going to move in at the Buddhist temple, as his family expected. He'd gone there when he was younger to spend a couple weeks as a "novice," or a monk in training, a common thing for young Lao boys in Anchorage. He knew what it would be like. He would have to trade his clothes for orange robes and shave his head and eyebrows. There would be a lot of rules. He wouldn't be able to eat after noon and would have to get up at 6 a.m. to pray. He wouldn't be able to touch women, including his mom, his sister and Eileen.

The required length of his stay wasn't well defined. His family said it would be more than a week but less than six months. The only clear thing was that he had to do it.

"If he don't do it," Pat, his mom, said one afternoon at her restaurant, "something will come back and haunt him."

Mitchell's older brother Avee was sent to Laos as a teenager to become a monk after a serious car accident. He's 24 now, in the Army, stationed in South Korea. He's married and has a daughter. This was proof to Mitchell's family that devotion brings good fortune.

Mitchell didn't answer my question right away. Steve spoke up instead.

"Mitchell doesn't really want to do it right now," he said.

I looked at Mitchell.

"No one knows what caused the cancer," he said.

He'd been to Laos the summer before his symptoms started, he said. There were bombs from the Vietnam war buried all over. Maybe they leaked chemicals into the water. Maybe that made him sick. Or what, he asked, if there was no reason for it? What if cancer just happened?

He said he didn't know if he wanted to go to the temple. Ever.

"It's my parents' religion," he said.

Mitchell had always been superstitious. If he didn't go to the temple and his cancer came back, I asked, would he wonder if he should have? Would he feel like he had an unpaid debt?

He took a bite of his sandwich and thought about that. Maybe he should do it, he said. Yeah, he'd do it. That weekend, he would go to the temple and just get it over with. He'd wear his robes to school. He told me to call him on Monday. He'd be living at the temple by then.

I called. He didn't answer. Eventually I called his mom. Mitchell didn't want to go to the temple, she told me. He went to the state fair instead.

"He's so dramatic," she said. "He should be an actor."

I heard from him a few days later. He said he'd decided to go to the temple after graduation in the spring. He asked his great-grandmother, he told me. She said it was OK.

The cancer was a ghost

A month passed. Then another. I traded texts with the boys every couple of weeks. In early October, Mitchell asked me to come with him to his follow-up appointment at Providence. We planned to meet at the Pediatric Infusion Center. As I was walking there, he jumped out from around the corner.

"Whassup?!" he said.

He'd just turned 18. Now he could go to his appointments alone, without his mom or sister as guardians.

A collection of children and parents sat in chairs around a television watching a Disney cartoon when we got there. Dr. Shannon Norman called him into one of the rooms. He motioned for me to follow. Norman asked him questions and felt his glands. She pulled up his last scan on a computer.

We watched as she scrolled through an image of his body sliced into layers. Neck. Shoulders. Chest. Abdomen. The cancer was a ghost now. Dead tissue. Darkness in places that used to light up. His glands were getting smaller. All good news.

A week later, Mitchell's great-grandfather died. Mitchell sent a text, inviting photographer Marc Lester and me to the funeral.

Obligation

Wat Lao, the Lao Buddhist temple, is a butter-colored house with a steep roof off Schodde Street in Mountain View. We slipped off our shoes in the foyer under a tangle of sticky rice baskets and found seats on the blanket-covered floor. Mitchell's mother, sister, sister-in-law, niece, aunts, female cousins and great-grandmother were seated toward the back, all dressed in white with cotton sashes tied from shoulder to hip. A heart-shaped funeral decoration sat on display, covered with dozens of folded dollar bills.

Early that morning, an uncle had shaved all of Mitchell's new hair and run a razor over his eyebrows. I caught a glimpse of him through the crack of the door to the temple living chambers. Avee, who'd traveled from South Korea, was helping him get into his robes.

Mitchell emerged with the male members of his family. They were wrapped, toga-style, in saffron-colored cotton. They took their places at the front of the room, beneath a towering golden Buddha. In the robes, I could see that Mitchell had a scar near his collarbone from the port that delivered his chemotherapy. The radiation had burned dark patches on his back.

Women from the temple set low tables with bowls of spicy fish, eggs cooked in tea, greens and baskets of sticky rice. The ceremony began. A monk at the front of the room chanted into a microphone. Other monks joined in. Mitchell's great-grandmother poured water from an ornate bottle into a bowl. The women nearby put their hands on her. Pouring the water sent blessings to her husband's spirit and brought good luck, Mitchell's sister Tiffany explained.

Later, Mitchell told me he no longer had reservations about being a monk after graduation. He said he didn't know if it would help his karma but he felt responsible for the tradition. He wanted to do what his family expected.

"My grandpa did it, my great-grandpa did it, my great-great-grandpa did it, so now it's coming down to me," he said. "I don't want it to stop where I am."

How boys mend

In February, I went back to Service for a student assembly. It was a "boys versus girls dance-off," meant to get the Cougars pumped for spring sports and an upcoming dance. Girls wore hot pink and boys dressed in blue. I caught sight of Steve and Mitchell at the foot of the bleachers. Steve's hair was cut into a mohawk. Mitchell wore a pair of Wayfarers. The gym filled with noise.

Cancer had been bad luck for Mitchell and Steve, but in other ways they had been lucky. They had each other through treatment. They both survived. Cancer tore through their lives, but now they were mending.

Cancer also took them places. Mitchell had been to Disney World thanks to the Make-a-Wish foundation. Sunshine Kids, a national nonprofit dedicated to kids with cancer, made them "spokeskids" for 2013. That sent them on a tour of theme parks in Orlando (the second Orlando trip for Mitchell) and to Las Vegas. This summer they will go to New York City and make an appearance on Good Morning America. With the help of Denali KidCare, Medicaid and the B-Boys' fundraiser, neither had debt.

They expected to graduate on time in May.

They only had a few more months of being boys, living in a world only as wide as their families and the daily triumphs and dramas of life at Service. When I asked how they explained getting cancer at the same time, they always said it was meant to be, that the experience was supposed to tie them together for good, to make them brothers. But already the concerns of life after graduation were pulling them in different directions. Their latest plan was to become mechanics (cancer ruled out the military, which they'd both been considering). It was looking like only Steve would study auto mechanics in Alaska. Mitchell wanted to move to Portland to study diesel mechanics. His parents had sold the Spenard restaurant. His sister was moving Outside.

The JROTC color guard marched to the center of the gym, hushing the crowd. A girl approached a microphone and began "The Star-Spangled Banner."

Being a senior in high school is like having a bank account filled with money you didn't earn and don't know the value of. All you have are possibilities. The risks aren't real yet. This was true for Steve and Mitchell, even with what they'd just survived. They didn't dwell on what they might have lost; maybe they didn't understand it. Maybe in that way, they were also lucky.

The girls' dance team went first, a few dozen of them in puffy-painted T-shirts doing a takeoff from the movie "Pitch Perfect." Their routine was tentative. The teacher-judges lifted signs with 7's and 8's.

The gym settled down for the boys' turn. I recognized the first few notes of "Harlem Shake." One boy in a helmet rocked by himself in the bleachers until the beat kicked in; then the others exploded, hundreds of them, a wall of hollering and pumping fists. Steve and Mitchell and other B-Boys spun and clowned and then stood on the gym floor, soaking in the adoring screams.

Luxury of normal

I asked Steve and Mitchell a dozen times over the months what cancer taught them. The question always left them quiet, until they thought of the things they were supposed to say: They valued their families more, they'd be best friends forever. Mainly, though, I could tell they didn't want to talk about cancer. They wanted to put it behind them, to enjoy the luxury of being normal teenagers worried about normal teenager things.

But cancer had changed them in subtle ways. They were both very health conscious now, treating exercise like insurance against getting sick again. They went to the gym all the time -- Mitchell to Planet Fitness and Steve to the YMCA, plodding along on the treadmill after school.

Mitchell thought about his karma a lot. He tried to be kind to people, he said, to think about how his actions could come back and alter the direction of his life. Sometimes he got a pain in his chest, like his heart was off its rhythm. To calm the feeling, he had to take deep breaths and count to 10.

Steve told me he tried to live like everything was back to the way it had been before his diagnosis. His parents and siblings were the same. The B-Boys were the same. School was the same. His scar, though, was always there, he said. When he took off his shirt at the gym, it shocked him every time. At night, before sleep, he ran his hand along it. That was the only time he let himself think about the mystery of all the things that happen.

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Email her at jomalley@adn.com, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at twitter.com/adn_jomalley. Reach staff photographer Marc Lester at mlester@adn.com and follow his Twitter updates at twitter.com/marclesterphoto.


Chapter one   |   Chapter two   |   Chapter three   |   Chapter four   |   Chapter five
Video: Part 1   |   Video: Part 2