Twenty-year-old Kristen Tuason is an unabashedly positive person, even when she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, lost a leg and saw her cancer return — twice. Some might be stunned that she credits the disease for her outlook.
Comedian Will Ferrell, right, jokes with Kristen Tuason. (Courtesy of Cancer for College)
“Having cancer has taught me that when tough situations come our way, we must always try to find the good,” Tuason recently wrote. The words formed part of her application to Cancer for College, an organization begun by former City of Hope patient Craig Pollard that gives college scholarships to cancer survivors.
Tuason was among 80 patients across the U.S. selected for this year’s awards and she will receive $4,000 each of the four years she attends college.
She and other honorees were introduced onstage during the “Kinda Humorous Comedy Show” held in August hosted by Pollard’s long-time friend, comedian Will Ferrell. The sold-out event benefiting Cancer for College scholarships was held at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif.
The Lakewood, Calif., resident was a 16-year-old high school junior in 2007 when she learned she had osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Dominic J. Femino, M.D., chief of the Division of Orthopaedic Surgery, had to amputate her leg below the knee to give her the best chance at fighting the cancer.
“Being an amputee is something I never thought would happen to me,” said Tuason, an accomplished athlete who loved basketball, surfing and running. Yet she soon adjusted to her prosthetic limb, and physical therapy helped her regain strength and independence.
In fall 2009, Tuason was about to begin nursing classes at Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles when she went for her usual follow-up medical appointment with Judith Sato, M.D., director of the Musculoskeletal Tumor Program. Four days before she was going to move into her dorm, she heard the words she feared: Cancer had developed in both lungs. Six months of chemotherapy and two lung surgeries followed.
After a year free from cancer, Tuason began her freshman year at Mount St. Mary’s last August — only to learn in September that cancer was present in her left lung. College would have to wait.
Tuason recently was asked how she remains so resilient. “I really don’t know,” she replied from her hospital bed. As she adjusted her prosthetic leg, she softly added, “I pray a lot.”
Her mother, Aida Tuason, agreed. “It’s the grace of acceptance, and leaving your trust in God. It’s easy to say, and hard to do but we just have to keep moving forward. We’ve always felt like she was a miracle kid.”
The young woman also has been buoyed by her family and friends who remember her in their prayer groups. In turn, she bolsters them. “She calls me a very emotional woman,” her mother said. “I get strength from her. She’s very determined.”
After she returns to health, Kristen Tuason looks forward pursuing nursing in school again. Although her mother is a nurse and she has volunteered at a hospital, she discovered her passion for nursing only after her diagnosis. “I saw how they could brighten up your day in such gloomy situations,” she said.
As a nurse, she would carry with her the firsthand understanding of the essence of disease and appreciation of life.
“I am not a victim of cancer,” she wrote in her application. “It has left its marks physically, but mentally it has made me stronger. Every single scar on my body represents the trials I’ve overcome, the obstacles I’ve surpassed, and the memories — good or bad — I will never forget.”