After raising a child who has an anxiety disorder, I admire Naomi Osaka's self-advocacy
Peter Menzel/Wikimedia Commons, Naomi Osaka/Twitter

If you were to meet my college-aged daughter on certain days, you'd never guess she suffered from a debilitating anxiety disorder. She can be personable, she can appear confident, she can seem at ease and comfortable in her own skin from the outside. She's a musician and she performs beautifully—and even particularly well under pressure. You might catch her belly laughing with her friends. You might see her excel at giving a class presentation. You might marvel at her many gifts.

What you wouldn't see is how many days she has spent barely able to leave her bedroom. How many hours she's spent paralyzed by the "what if" monster in her brain. How many social events she's missed because she just couldn't make herself get in the car. How many emails she's had to send teachers to explain that her anxiety was getting the better of her (and could she possibly get an extension on a deadline?). You won't see how many times and ways she's beat herself up for not being able to function like people who don't struggle with mental illness.

My daughter is smart and talented and capable. She also wages daily internal battles most people don't see, and she doesn't win every battle. Therapy has helped a lot, but it's a lot of work. Raising her has helped me develop a deep respect for anyone who struggles with anxiety because I know how much work it takes to get to a good place. And I know how much work it takes to get your brain to stay there.

That's why seeing tennis star Naomi Osaka announce that she wasn't going to do press conferences at the French Open because they were too hard on her mental health piqued my attention. I don't really follow tennis and only know Osaka's name from headlines, but reading her initial statement felt familiar.


At age 23, Osaka is only a few years older than my daughter. And yet it's clear that she, like my daughter, has learned to advocate for herself. That's a gift that should not be undervalued.

When Osaka explained that she wouldn't be doing press conferences at the French Open, many people immediately criticized her. Talking to the press is part of being a professional athlete, some said, and if she doesn't like it maybe she shouldn't be in pro sports. I don't think those people actually listened to what she was saying. Or perhaps they didn't really think through what she said.

"I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," Osaka wrote in a statement on Twitter and Instagram last week. "We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.

    "I've watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well. I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."

    After basically being told she'd have to participate in press conferences, face huge fines, or perhaps be prevented from competing, Osaka pulled out of the tournament altogether. And this time, she got a bit more specific about her mental health struggles.

    "I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that," she wrote. "Anyone that knows me knows I'm introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.

    "Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can."

    I can imagine my daughter saying something like this—and I also know that she'd mean something more than what the simple words on the page say. Most of us would feel nervous talking to the press, naturally, which leads to people's "Eh, just suck it up and deal with it" attitudes. But for someone who struggles with anxiety as a mental health disorder, it's not just about dealing with some nerves. Anxiety can be debilitating—and it affects everything. My daughter's anxiety disorder has nothing directly to do with her schoolwork, and yet it makes getting her schoolwork done nearly impossible some days. I can only imagine how anxiety would impact an athlete's performance—the whole purpose for their being in a tournament to begin with—and how necessary it would feel to mitigate the things that contribute to it.

    So while some people have called Osaka a drama queen or a diva for saying, "I'm not okay with this, and here's why," I see a young woman who is being vulnerable in sharing her needs, advocating for herself, and taking necessary action when a situation isn't tenable.

    My daughter has had to learn to advocate for herself, which is vulnerable and scary. Thankfully, the vast majority of the time her self-advocacy been met with support and reasonable accommodation. I've seen similar support and solidarity pour out for Osaka on social media, which is heartening. I've also seen callous criticism and cruelty, which heartbreaking.

    Naomi Osaka is one of the top tennis players on the planet, and for her to back out of a major global tournament is no small thing. And she's right—talking to the press isn't an innate part of being an athlete, nor is it a necessary one, especially in the age of social media where athletes have the ability to speak directly to people who follow them.

    I've seen people bag on Osaka because she makes millions of dollars from tennis, meaning she should just put up with the bad stuff since it's paying her so well. But just because someone is highly successful in their field and makes a ton of money doesn't mean they are immune to mental health issues, and it certainly doesn't mean we should expect them to do things that are hurting them.

    When my daughter is deep in a bout of anxiety, no amount of money could make her do something that her brain is telling her not to do—even when it's something she wants to do. But that doesn't mean she can't do anything. Naomi Osaka's mental health isn't keeping her from playing tennis. Her ability to compete isn't the question here. It's the mental health impact of media expectations, and if an athlete who is at the top of their game, who has spent their whole life working toward competing in top-level tournaments, backs out of something like the French Open, that means something.

    Having watched and walked with my daughter through years of battle with her own brain, I admire Osaka for highlighting the importance of mental health. I know that many people don't understand her needs or don't agree with the way she's communicating them, but those people have no idea how hard this stuff is. Seriously, no idea.

    I know, because I didn't have any idea until I witnessed and walked with my daughter through her own anxiety ups and downs how hard it truly is. So even if the only thing that comes from this is a bigger discussion on mental health, great. We need to talk about this stuff more often and more openly.

    Thank you, Ms. Osaka, for getting the ball rolling.


      via Sasssy Gran / TikTok

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      via Sasssy Gran / TikTok

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      She's had a tough life which has given her a special edge that you don't find with most nonagenarians. There's also her elegant couture to show the young kids what real class looks like.

      Doris was made famous by her grandson Gio who clearly loves going out to dinner with his grandmother and hearing her stories and advice.

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      True

      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."