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When it Comes to Cancer, Bulbs are Better than Flowers

by JulieAnn Villa

JulieAnn Villa told this story as part of #PLSLive @ Wild Things in Chicago, Feb 23, 2019.

Transcript: I’m going to keep these notes here. I also have to talk about Biology a little bit, forgive me because I am a trained chemist so if I get the biology of flowers wrong…

I grew up shadowing my mother. What that means is that she was was an avid gardener, so she gave me the space behind our yard which was filled with dandelions. And for me this meant I could pick as many as I wanted, I could line up the dandelions, I could make daisy chains, I could do everything I wanted with them. And in fact I think I got my first bee sting in that amazing space behind our yard.

I also at the same time was in a Montessori kindergarten at the age of 4, and one of the amazing things they brought in, which was just wonderful to me as a budding young scientist, was they brought in tulips and then food coloring. So the experiment was you put the white tulips into jars filled with water and food coloring and then we would color our pictures of how the color went up, which is an awesome way to engage kids with graphs, which is why still today I have a love for math that is only overshadowed by my love of science.

I have always related to the world around me through flowers and plants.

So that's 4 year old me. Fast forward to me in my early 30s. And i essentially have two passions and two groups of friends. The first of those are endurance athletes, and endurance athlete events. What this means is that in my spare time I train to ride 100 miles on my bike, or to run 26.2 miles in a marathon. And I pay to do this and I do this with great passion. And most of my friends I met through a local cancer charity. So we are people with a ton of energy, we spend all of our time training. And in our spare time, we raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research, and to help cancer patients and their families and promote education. And I’ve done this for so long that I eventually became a coach to help other people ride their bike a hundred miles and raise money for charity.

The second group of people are teachers, much like Becky that you heard today. And teachers are a unique group of people.They get locked in rooms for 6 hours a day with teenagers. They talk about things like climate change and evolution and sexual and asexual reproduction, which of course makes a lot of giggles in the room. And these are people who for their level of education make a relatively low wage. They are also very strong willed, passionate people.

So these two groups of people sort of converged on my house one day. At the age of 36 I was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which was a kind of a pain in the ass, and I make that joke like all the time, I have learned to own that.

And I also really love Halloween. Annually I would have this pumpkin carving party. And when I said to my friends, because I was diagnosed with cancer about a month before Halloween, I said to my friends maybe I should cancel, they said, “no, just have it and we’ll show up. We’ll all show up.” And in fact, what I didn’t know was that more people than I had invited showed up.

And when I meant “show up at my house,” at the time I was newly divorced and my finances were in the post-divorce apocalyptic horrible state that happens financially. And then I had this major diagnosis. And I also owned a hundred year old house that I had no idea how to take care of.

So when these teachers and also endurance athletes showed up at my house they came with things like leaf blowers and shovels and they packed 40 bags of leaves. They fixed my doorbell. The fixed the windows that I had no idea what to do with, but that I knew leaked air all the time in the winters of Chicago.

And they did all of these things, again, as a way of showing me that they would still be there for me.

But the one thing that happened is two of my friends used my now functioning doorbell and they were there, and they greeted me with trowels and gardening gloves and they held a brown paper bag filled with tulip bulbs.

And they said, where can we plant these? And I get incredibly emotional when I say, they said “by the time that these come up, it will all be over, it will be better. These will come up in the spring”.

So they planted these tulip bulbs in front of my hundred year old house that I didn’t know what to do with, dozens of tulip bulbs. And as I lost my hair and I lost my fertility and I couldn’t bike and I couldn’t run and I stopped working, I knew that in the spring, eventually spring would come and the tulips would bloom, which they did.

Those blooms kept coming back. And the amazing thing about bulbs is that when they are doing this aboveground showy flashy thing thing with stems and flowers, I’ve learned that belowground they are also doing the same thing for the year to come. So a bulb is actually a small stem with some leaves around it, with all of the nutrients that you can actually move and it will bloom in the next year. And the coolest thing is that bulbs will also go into reproducing so they will make 4 or 5 new bulbs that will can then go on and become more tulips.

And for me this was just an incredible symbol of hope.

I am now a two time cancer survivor and I can’t tell you what it meant that my friends gave me this notion, that as Pablo Neruda who is one of my favorite poets of all time, said, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming.” And when I saw the flowers come up every year it took me to my four year old self who had this wonder and awe of science and also my 30 year old self that had this eternal hope: that no matter what the fall brought or what happened in winter, that spring would always come.

Friends fixing the windows

JulieAnn Villa loves science. Her career as a high school teacher, lead her to a career in science and health communication.. She holds a B.S. from MIT and recently completed her M.S. in health communication at Northwestern University. JulieAnn is a cancer survivor and is active in the young adult community working for advocacy and education.


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1 Comment

May 29, 2020

I really enjoy you writing style and excitement of plants. I share the same interest. Please keep on going!

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