Zein was 5 years old and training hard in taekwondo when his first cancer symptoms started to creep in. His dad, Tamer, noticed that Zein was sweating much more than usual and complaining of body aches and leg pain. Tamer assumed it was just a result of his vigorous training, but it slowly got worse – Zein was sweating through his sheets at night, and his leg pain increased.
Tamer, thinking his spirited 5-year-old son was just tired and trying to get out of training, began to get frustrated.
“One night when we were training together, I got upset with him and told him, ‘Don’t give up, don’t quit. If you’re going to give up, get off the mat.’ I thought he was just acting up, so I told him to sit on the bench. I didn’t know what was really happening.”
As Zein began to look pale and lose his appetite, Tamer and Radwa, Zein’s mom, started to think something more serious was going on. After many visits to doctors who told them it was probably a normal virus, Radwa insisted that doctors dig deeper and run some blood tests. What they found was every parent’s worst-case scenario. Zein had a cancerous mass, and he needed to go straight to the hospital by ambulance for emergency surgery.
“It was a pure Grey’s Anatomy scene,” Radwa remembers. “There were gurneys zooming up and doctors with gloomy faces and green curtains being swished back… It didn’t feel real.”
Zein says he doesn’t remember much from the early parts of his cancer experience, but he can imagine how scary it was to hear the word ‘cancer’ for the first time.
“I couldn’t really understand it at the time because I was so young,” said Zein, now 12. “But now I can understand how painful it was to hear that your son has cancer.”
This was the first time Zein was diagnosed with cancer, but it wouldn’t be the last. After finishing 14 months of treatment for what his family now calls “cancer number one,” doctors found another tumor – this time in Zein’s brain.
Cancers 2, 3 and 4
Childhood brain tumors are the deadliest of childhood cancers, and this new diagnosis shook Zein and his family to their core. Treatment involved four separate brain surgeries, all of which came with huge, life-threatening risks. One of the surgeries left Zein paralyzed on his right side.
“It basically deleted all my strength on my right side, and I’m right-handed,” Zein said. “I was stuck with a lazy eye, horrible speech, I could barely pronounce any words, and I could barely walk on my right leg. I just couldn’t believe what position I was in at that moment.”
Though the side effects were devastating, the surgeries worked – Zein was cancer-free again. He put in months of hard work to regain movement on his right side, and over the next two and a half years, cancer slowly started to fade into the background of his life – until it burst back to the forefront. In September 2017, Zein was diagnosed with cancer for the third time, followed a few months later by a fourth.
“This time, Radwa and I just sat down together in complete shock,” Tamer said. “We felt betrayed. There were no signs whatsoever, he was getting healthy, the paralysis was going away… We got two and a half years of health and then this, again?”
The whole family says cancers three and four felt like turning points for them. If this wasn’t something they could put out of their lives, they had to find a way to take control of it. During the next rounds of treatment, they decided to be done imagining their lives if they’ve never been touched by cancer.
“You can’t live your life in ‘what if,’” Zein said. “If you live your life like that, you can’t take control. You have to take the control away from cancer and live your life.”
In Radwa’s mind, time is split into “before cancer” and “after cancer.” Even though she knows life will never be the same, she chooses to count the blessings that have come into her family’s life amidst the turmoil.
“Everything after cancer is magnified,” Radwa said. “The pain was so big, the loss was so big, but the blessings were big as well. Everything is better and bigger and more colorful and more meaningful, now that we know what really matters.”
Never, Ever Give Up
Living in the shadow of cancer for so many years has shaped Zein and his whole family. They’ve all learned different things from their cancer experience, but the biggest lesson from everyone is to never, ever give up.
“I think as a family we knew this was either going to make us or break us,” Radwa said. “It’s very stressful, for the patient and sibling and caregivers, but we’d all stop every once in a while to check in and make sure everyone was ok.”
Zein’s younger sister, Malak, says it’s shown her how to stay positive and lean on others in the face of so much struggle.
“I think what I’ve learned the most is don’t ever quit, and stay together,” Malak said. “You can probably do it alone, but why? If you’re going to do it alone, there’s no one there to hug you when you need it or bring you stuff when you need it. Just stay together and never give up, never quit.”
Zein says “never, ever give up” has been his constant mantra since being diagnosed with cancer. It was a lesson he was learning from his parents even before cancer became a part of his life, when he was fighting as hard as he could on that taekwondo mat. He says it has shown him how to handle any setback or tragedy, no matter how big or small.
“I’d tell this to anyone who is fighting something – just always fight on,” Zein said. “No matter what you’re going through, just never, ever give up.”