What September 11, 2001, taught me about kindness.
In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, President George W. Bush delivers remarks discouraging anti-Muslim sentiment, September 17, 2001, at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. Image via the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

I had been at my new job in Washington, D.C. for exactly one week when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 began.

I worked for a publication called The Hotline, a daily political briefing catering to the most diehard insiders in and around Washington. Our readership was small but influential—subscribers ponied up $5,000 annually. Years before blogs and Twitter, if you wanted to know what was really happening in politics, you read The Hotline.

As usual, work began before 6 a.m. that day, with the sun just beginning to rise over the Potomac River, its rays slowly filtering through the glass-windowed wall of our little newsroom tucked inside the historic Watergate complex.


The office was encircled by roughly a dozen television screens hanging from the ceiling so that we could see what was happening across every cable news channel simultaneously by simply looking up from the roughly 200 newspapers we were tasked with methodically scanning each morning for any relevant bit of political news.

It was just after 8:45 a.m.—before the vast majority of people on the East Coast had arrived to work, and while most of the West Coast was still asleep—when news broke that an aircraft had collided with the north tower of the World Trade Center.

My colleagues paused briefly to take it in; we assumed it was a tragic accident, nothing more, and went back to work.

Less than 20 minutes later, a second plane, United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston, crashed into the South Tower.

I rushed across the room to tell my boss Chuck Todd—today the renowned host of NBC’s “Meet the Press”—that I had just seen a second crash occurring live.

“You’re seeing a replay,” he assured me. I walked back to my desk, wondering how I could have seen a “replay” of an event the media wasn’t really covering until after the fact.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.

It wasn’t even an hour later when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon. We could see the smoke trail ascending into the sky just a few short miles away from our office.

By the time the gravity of the situation had set in, nearly every office in the Watergate had been evacuated, save for ours. Atlantic Media’s CEO David Bradley came down to assure us that anyone who wanted to leave could. Not a single person budged. Most of us were recent graduates from state colleges. The Hotline had given us an opportunity most would otherwise never have known, an oasis of meritocracy in a city catering to Ivy League children of privilege. We knew we were witnessing history and wanted to play our part, however small.

As I typed away on my desktop computer, a report (later proved false) began circulating that a fifth plane had been spotted heading down the Potomac toward the Watergate, home to political luminaries such as Bob Dole and then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

I peeked out my office window half expecting to see a jetliner barreling directly toward me. Seeing an empty horizon, I just went back to work.

Strangely, I wasn’t the least bit afraid. People later would say I was in shock, still processing the unfolding events.

But the truth was that moving from a small town in Oregon to a place like Washington, D.C. was already so overwhelming that on some level I simply assumed that what was happening was normal. And I honestly never really believed that either I or our country were in any real danger.

In the coming days, Chuck Todd began assigning us respective areas of post-9/11 coverage.

My beat—at the time a throwaway assignment for the most junior person on staff—was to track hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans across the United States.

And while there were many incidents of violence, xenophobia, and religious intolerance (the FBI reports there were roughly 500 incidents of hate crimes against Muslim Americans in 2001), the predominant theme in D.C. was one of Americans going out of their way to embrace their neighbors, whether they were Muslim, Arab American, or otherwise.

US Muslims listen to speeches 13 September, 2001 in Pasadena CA, at an Interfaith Memorial Service for victims of 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. Lucy Nicholson/Getty Images/

All around Washington, there were small gestures of kindness and tolerance.

Many people assumed a local restaurant in my neighborhood, The Afghan Grill, would be boycotted or protested. Instead, it became nearly impossible to get a table as people flocked to learn more about the country’s cuisine and support the restaurant’s owners.

Meanwhile, directly across the street from the entrance to the Watergate was the Saudi Arabian embassy. Employees were warned to expect a flash of protests and suspicious activity after it was revealed that 15 of the 19 hijackers were citizens of Saudi Arabia. I never saw a single protestor. The only noticeable activity took place when Michael Moore’s film crew shot a scene there for his documentary film Fahrenheit 911.

Ironically, perhaps no public figure better encapsulated D.C.’s adherence to restraint and tolerance than President Bush himself. Despite his shortcomings, his response to Muslim Americans, and Islam itself, in the wake of the tragedy is undeniably compelling today. Nine days after the attacks, he said during an address to Congress:

“We respect your [Muslim] faith… Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends.”

The unity expressed in the days and weeks following 9/11 was a truly exceptional moment.

Since then, the only one that’s come close for me was the near universal sense of pride on the faces of Americans in New York City and Washington, D.C. the day after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Now, 17 years later, I can’t help but wonder when or how we ended up at such a cultural crossroads.

The president speaks of setting up barriers, literal and figurative, to keep Muslims out of America.

Anti-Muslim hate crimes remain far higher than their pre-9/11 levels.

And many progressives are unwilling to confront the continued threat from extremist groups such as ISIS at the risk of sounding politically incorrect.

We’ve been doing a better job separating ourselves from each other than from those who would do us real harm both here and abroad.

I’ve been told that I was on the “front lines” of September 11, 2001. I resist that description; I never saw a dead body and never truly feared for my own safety, naively or otherwise.

What I did see was how my city, and our nation, responded to a real crisis—with kindness. Back in 2003, Muhammad Ali told journalist Cal Sussman that in his eyes, true evil didn’t necessarily require overt action, merely a lack of kindness.

Stories of kindness and tolerance are rarely covered by the media. I’d like to hope that it’s because they happen so often, they aren’t really newsworthy.

But along with everything else that’s changed in the last 17 years, the media has been radically democratized. You don’t have pay $5,000 to find out what’s really happening, and I think that’s a great thing.

I’d encourage all of us to share stories of kindness—to move the conversation forward with open eyes and open ears. It would go a long way toward restoring some of that post-9/11 unity, no tragedy required.

This story originally appeared on GOOD.

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

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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."