Candid lessons that helped a young, grieving widow learn to live after loss.
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Prudential

Amelia and Manny made clear plans when they got married.

They planned to travel around the world. They planned what they’d want their family and their futures to look like. It was all so normal and real.

And then something they couldn't have planned for happened: Manny unexpectedly passed away soon after they'd tied the knot.


When the doctor in the emergency room told Amelia that it was time to say goodbye, she was in disbelief. "How do you even do that?" she wondered.

Manny in the parking lot holding a two of hearts the day they eloped. All images via Amelia Borealis.

Instead of being a young, happy newlywed, Amelia became a young, grieving widow.

It turned her life upside down. In the months that followed, she could barely wake up and get out of bed, let alone put on clothes and walk to work. Every day felt harder than the last while the world continued on around her.

"I wanted so painfully for everything to just stop," Amelia said in an interview for Prudential's Masterpiece of Love series. "I was so tired. I just wanted it to stop." But it didn't stop. Life kept going and so did she, at times reluctantly.

Today, Amelia has come out on the other side of the most difficult journey she could have imagined, and it's taught her a lot about herself, the grieving process, and how often life doesn't go as planned.

In hopes of helping others, Amelia wrote down eight things she learned about living after loss:

1. "Moving on" is a fallacy. Amelia prefers to call it "moving forward."

"Moving on" implies letting your person go, and that's an unrealistic expectation, Amelia wrote.

"Instead, you simply swim through it until the water clears up a little more, until the profundity of the depth is less terrifying, and until it feels a little easier, because you've gotten good at swimming."

Skydiving helped Amelia to commemorate the six-month anniversary of Manny's passing. "I guess some part of me felt like I could get closer to Manny somehow by stepping into the sky," she said.

2. "Try to remain open to life."

Amelia took a chance and met someone again who turned out to be a wonderful man. Having your heart broken again after loss is a nasty slap in the face, she wrote, but you should not let it shut you down.

"Practice kindness and graciousness when others are kind to you," she said, "and compassion when they aren't. That's a good practice for any relationship,."

A snapshot of of a happy life.

3. Hers is not a "success story."

The peaceful person Amelia is today has "clawed, gasped, screamed and survived." She fell in love again and had a child, but those are not successes she can claim. She says that getting to raise her baby has been a wonderful blessing, and new life gives loss slightly more perspective. Every day, as her baby learns, she is reminded that life continues.

An ordinary day after work. "I think this photo captures a very honest moment of peace and overwhelming love," Amelia said.  

4. This is a big one: "Release any hostility or jealousy."

"Friends will get married and have children, celebrate anniversaries and successes, all while you are alone in the dark," she wrote. "They will forget to be sensitive to your heartache, or think  that you're 'over it' enough so you won't mind if they gush. They might think that it's easier for you to show up with a smile than it really is. Let that go, too."

People are going to say the wrong things. They will say unbelievably tone-deaf things. It's important to not take hurtful words to heart, as hard as that can be. She advises trying to imagine a time when it will be easier to be happy for others again without feeling heartache yourself. Doing this will be healing.

5. "It will take longer than you expect."

Amelia wrote, "Because it doesn't go away, or stop, and because you don't get over it, that old heartache keeps creeping up long after you thought it should have gotten easier. Be compassionate with yourself. Life is not a round trip voyage; why should your grieving process be? You will get better at navigating the new normal."

A photo after her first pilot lesson.

6. "Only you know what you're really going through."

Amelia points to how well-meaning people will come out of the woodwork, desperate to tell you about when their somebody died, for three reasons:

One, they want to be helpful. Two, society shuns them from talking about their lost loved one and they want you to be a person whom they can commiserate with. Three, see number one.

Some people will say helpful things. But every grief is different. Every relationship is different. Every person who has passed is different, and every grieving person is different. If you grieve in your own way, you're doing it right.

Amelia on the Highline in New York City.

7. "The right partner will actively keep the memory alive with you."

"Be careful not to get so swept up in escaping your grief that you choose someone who wants you to get over it," she wrote. "Don't you dare let anyone take your grief from you."

The right partner will hold your hand on the anniversaries (if that's what you want), will wish that they could have met your person, and will admire how you still love that person today.

8. And finally: "You can do this."

"There may be times you're pretty sure I'm wrong on this point," she wrote. "That's ok, rest when it's too hard. Find something — anything — and hang on like hell. These peaks and valleys gradually get less steep. It takes a long time, but they do. And there is sunshine again out there somewhere."

A fun day swinging in the park.

As many of us know, life often doesn't go according to plan.

It's still hard for Amelia every single day. But she says it also makes her experience things on a deeper level. Whether it’s raindrops on her skin or the feeling of breath going in and out of her lungs, everything is more vivid.

She says Manny's passing has a lot to do with that; he reminds her that every single day is a gift.

Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

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Photo by Mike Marrah on Unsplash

The "Big 5" is an old term from the colonial era, denoting the five wild animals in Africa that were the most sought-after kills for trophy hunters. Killing those five—lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and Cape buffalo—meant ultimate success in the big-game hunting world.

Now there's a "New Big 5," but instead of a barbaric goal for trophy hunters, it's a beautiful goal for wildlife photographers.

The initiative was created by British wildlife photographer Graeme Green with the goal of raising awareness about threats to the world's animals including habitat loss, poaching, illegal animal trade, and climate change. In a global call for votes, 50,000 wildlife lovers shared which animals they most wanted to photograph or see in photos. And the winners are:

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."