Nancy is 60 years old.
She has a great life.
She also has Stomach Cancer, Stage IV.
Here is her story.
In the mid 1960s, America recognized a need for skilled professionals and began recruiting experts from overseas, namely Asia. At the same time, Korean families facing rising unemployment rates, political instability, and military dictatorship became uncertain about a stable future in their own homeland.
With America opening the floodgates, waves of Korean immigrants steadily arrived, decade after decade, quickly forming one of the largest immigrant communities in the U.S.
The children of these immigrants, referred to as the “the Second Generation” make up the current Korean American community of the present day. Nancy’s family was one of those who realized their chances for a better life lied an ocean away, and so like many others they decided to start anew on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Nancy, originally from P’yŏngyang, North Korea, immigrated to the United States as a toddler in the 1960s with her parents, sister, and maternal grandmother. Her father eventually established himself as an electrical engineer and her mother as a translator.
Even today, over fifty years later, Nancy still answers to her Korean name, Haneul (which means Heaven), but now usually only hears it at home from her mother. Nancy’s much older sister, Bora, chose to keep her birth name since she had little interest in her new life in America. Bora, leaving behind a close group of childhood friends and a sweetheart when they moved, was resistant to assimilation and mostly kept to herself or helped her grandmother prepare traditional Korean meals.
Nancy on the other hand grew up being excited by everything American. She loved cheeseburgers and baseball and was fascinated by convertible cars and the local fashions…bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed crop tees were her favorite. She very badly wanted to make American friends and practiced English for hours at night, flinching every time her accent was detected. Nancy worked hard to have a simple, American upbringing and pretended that she belonged until she felt like she actually did.
And she did.
Nancy’s parents, recognizing her desire to fit in with American culture, supported her attending a public school as long as she maintained her mother tongue, which she promised to do. She ignored her thick, dark flowing hair and porcelain skin which stood sharply against the blond beach waves and freckles of her school friends. She joined the tennis team, tried weed on a few occasions, and even learned to surf. She decided that, by all accounts, she was a new kind of California-girl.
And she was!
Being a motivated, disciplined student, and a true patriot, Nancy accepted a scholarship at Cal State LA where she joined their Army ROTC program, studying engineering, like her father, and excelled in her coursework. During her Junior year, Nancy fell fast and hard for a friendly, charismatic blond-haired, blue-eyed young man from Nebraska. As handsome as he was good-natured, Paul was a charming, hard-working, family-oriented engineering major interested in building irrigation systems in rural communities, like the one he came from.
As opposite as their backgrounds were on paper, the two fell madly in love. Tall, broad and corn-fed, this was not a man that Nancy’s immigrant family expected to walk through the door of their traditionally-decorated Korean-style home. He quickly won over Nancy’s grandmother and sister with his open smile, generous sense of humor, and obvious adoration of Nancy. And after earning her parents respect and approval, Paul proposed to Nancy on the day of their college graduation.
As a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserves, Nancy spent the next eight years designing Army building structure plans, developing civil works programs and working with natural resources to pay off her college degree. During that time, she and Paul married and welcomed Jon Jacob (who they called JJ) and a few years later, little Evie.
When the war in Afghanistan launched in 2021, Nancy was compelled to join the effort and deployed for two back-to-back tours of duty, leaving Paul in charge of their home and their school-aged children. Proud of his wife for her unwavering loyalty to her country, Paul embraced his role as head of household, and ran a tight ship keeping the kids clean, fed, and on schedule with their schooling, homework, and activities…most of the time. “Every night, when I finally got them off to bed, I found myself taking deep breaths and giving myself pep talks. Every day that Nancy was gone was like running a marathon through a swamp. I couldn’t wait for her to come back,” Paul confesses with a guilty grin.
When she returned, Nancy felt that she had finally and profoundly given back to the country she loved. She also could not un-see or un-hear the injustices and atrocities of war that she witnessed while serving. Nancy decided to let go of her military career and instead teach engineering courses at several local colleges and universities.
However, with more and more veterans returning from the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan Nancy recognized the need to create support groups for these wartime soldiers, “I witnessed the various levels of trauma while I was in Afghanistan. We took care of our soldiers out there, but there was little to no support available when then these vets returned state-side. Some had no homes, others no family. Some had no limbs, others no will to live. Almost all were suffering mentally,” Nancy explains.
Paul encouraged Nancy to start a small, grass-roots organization where donations could be assembled and later delivered to the hospital beds of returning wounded veterans. Nancy’s little operation quickly grew and flourished and she became somewhat of a local hero and catalyst for positive change. With volunteers in the hundreds, the couple were featured in a nationally televised news story, which caught the attention of another like-minded organization out of Virginia, The Wounded Warriors Project.
Through the years, and with that kind of momentum behind them, Nancy and Paul spent their free time raising funds, donations, and awareness for the veteran community. The couple continued working in their respective engineering fields and watched, with pride and delight, as their children started families of their own. Evie settled down and recently gave birth to a baby boy named Lincoln and JJ was newly engaged and planning his wedding to a lovely third generation Korean girl he said reminded him of his mother. “I’m not sure if JJ means it as a compliment or not, but Katie is a great girl, and we are very excited for them to start their life together,” giggles Nancy.
Nancy leads a healthy lifestyle…she eats well, walks, hikes, and is generally active. She’s never been a smoker but she will indulge in a glass of champagne or two on special occasions. Her immune system is strong and she doesn’t remember the last time she had a cold or even a headache. However, last year, Nancy started to experience heartburn and acid reflux which she treated with over-the-counter medication. When those symptoms persisted and compounded with unfamiliar abdominal pain and discomfort, she consulted a gastroenterologist who ordered an endoscopy and a colonoscopy.
To everyone’s astonishment, the results uncovered stomach cancer and a gastrectomy was ordered as the first course of treatment, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. Since there was no family history and the disease was thought to be caught early-enough, the goal was to permanently eradicate the cancer in one fell swoop. Being an Army vet and a strong-willed individual, Nancy took the news in stride, “Hey, aside from a little cancer in my belly, I feel great. I’m active, I still walk the dog every day. Paul and I go paddleboarding. I’m not even retired yet. I plan to live my life as normally as possible.” Nancy said with confidence.
And she did.
She muscled through the surgery and learned how to eat and what to eat and when to eat in order to maintain her strength. She wore pretty scarves when her hair fell out and cut it into a stylish pixie when it finally came back in. She talked about her cancer openly to the veterans she helped and the students she taught, never shying away from her reality but always coming across as hopeful and unwavering.
Ten months later, the cancer was back and after several scans and tests, it was determined that the cancer had spread to the peritoneum, making it a stage IV diagnosis. Being an eternal optimist and with the support of her family, Nancy was determined to fight the cancer for as long as it took, no matter what it took. Luckily, she was accepted into a promising clinical trial only 20 miles away from home and is excited about being closely monitored and about having a good outcome. She shares, “I have several friends who have gone through cancer clinical trials and have been around for years to talk about it. I’m hoping the same for myself.”
She’s looking forward to watching her grandson, Lincoln, take his first steps next year and to JJ’s and Katie’s wedding next summer, “I’m wearing a gorgeous lavender dress as I walk my handsome son down the aisle. And we’re having our mother-son dance choreographed to ‘What a Wonderful World’ by Louis Armstrong. So much to look forward to…” Nancy sighs as she looks at Lincoln napping in his crib.
And there is.
Nancy is not a cancer patient but rather a person with cancer. She is so many things greater than her cancer. Nancy has a life worth fighting for.
And so do you.