ANDRE SOBEL AWARD
Joseph attends Richard Montgomery High School in Maryland and
enjoys playing competitive soccer on his school’s Varsity Soccer
team that is ranked #10 in his state. He is a student in the
International Baccalaureate program and homework is a constant in
his life. Joseph is an avid skier and snowboarder throughout winter
and makes trips to local ski resorts weekly during the peak of ski
season. He has drawn and played piano nearly all of his life and even
tried his hand at oil painting for a couple of years. Many of his
paintings are hanging in his house as decoration. Joseph likes to
believe that he lives by the saying, “I had cancer, but cancer never
had me.” He hopes all cancer survivors will keep that thought in
mind no matter the circumstances.
JOSEPH TONG’S ESSAY
“I had cancer, but cancer never had me”
Pain, a simple four letter word that conveys so much. Lying in the backseat of our family’s only car,
I feebly ﬁght to remain conscious. The pain is unbearable. The speedometer is over 100, dad needs to
slow down. We’ll crash. The pain, where’s it coming from? Why so much pain? The trees whip by our
window. We’re going to crash. Pain. Searing, lancing pain. Dad’s going too fast, mom always told him to
slow down. I open my mouth to tell him, but I can’t form words, only a scream. Too much pain. Please
stop… I’m gonna die. No, dad’s here, I’ll be okay… then darkness.
As they wheel me down the hospital corridors, I look up and see a masked face. He catches my
eye, sees me looking, and quickly hands me a rubber ducky. It preoccupies me for a few seconds but the
exhilaration of being pushed down the hallway is irresistible. It’s like my own car! As I round the last
corner, I see my mom crying. Why is she crying? “Mom, don’t cry… I have my rubber ducky,” I say,
desperately trying to comfort my mother of her mysterious grief. I give it a squeeze, attempting with
futility to stop her tears. “…I have my rubber ducky,” I reiterate. But the masked men don’t stop; they
whisk me through the looming, double doors as I frantically twist myself around as far as those stupid
tubes will allow. I give my rubber ducky one more feeble squeeze before the big doors swing shut. I’m
not sure if she heard, I really hope she did. But wait, I don’t want a mask. What are you doing? No, stop
—what’s that smell? …bubble gum. And then, darkness—
“Hey, look… it’s the kid with no hair.” I cringe; I know there’s more coming.
“Look at him! He’s bald!” I hear a laugh. “Man, he looks like an alien.” Another laugh. “Hey baldie,
still wearing your baseball cap?” I don’t respond, staring at the cold, glaring cafeteria wall. I have no hair.
I pray, with every ﬁber of my being, that maybe just this once, they aren’t talking to me. But I know… no
matter how far down I pull the brim of my hat, no matter how hard I stare at those unforgiving walls, I
have no hair.
“HEY! Baldie, I’m talkin’ to you.” Out of the corner of my eye, I see my 2nd grade friends
awkwardly shy away from me, unwilling to recognize the blatant bullying, none brave enough to save me
—but what can I expect? I have no hair… I turn around and place my Thomas the Choo Choo Train
lunchbox that I received at the hospital onto the lunch table, desperately constructing any type of barrier
to protect me from the inevitable. But even Thomas the Engine can’t stand up for me. I have no hair.
Why? Why do I have no hair?
That night, I fell asleep crying in my mom’s arms, and then, darkness.
Writing this essay has been hard. When I sat down to tell my story, it was difﬁcult to begin. The
process of remembering, recalling, and reliving the past was a bumpy road I’d rarely traveled, a road I
rarely wanted to travel. At ﬁrst, I was unwilling. I pushed off this essay over and over again, constantly
making up excuses for myself. I told myself I’d get down to it, I’d travel that beaten path and I would
ﬁnish telling my story. But I seemed to always ﬁnd something else to do: homework, soccer practice, a
ski trip, a party…
JOSEPH TONG’S ESSAY
Then, ﬁve days before the deadline, my mom had had enough. She had read my ﬁrst few feeble drafts
and told me, “You have so much more to tell. I know your story can’t be told in 1000 words, but you have
to try. For others who might be going through what you’ve gone through, you have to try.” I desperately
tried to tell her that I didn’t remember, I couldn’t remember, I didn’t want to remember. I was diagnosed at
a young age and my memories were spotty, consisting of bits and pieces of my battle. And so that night
after dinner, a decade after my diagnosis, my family sat down. Together, my parents and I ﬁnally
overcame our emotional occlusion, our physical inability to look back and remember. Like me, they were
never willing to relive the past, never strong enough to reopen the chapter of our lives that had always
remained locked and closed.
That night, my story was ﬁnally revealed. My dad—always emotionally strong, always mentally
stoic—visibly fought back tears. My mom had to pause several times in order to continue, unable to
suppress her emotions. I felt tears in my eyes. We were an emotional wreck, but the catharsis of my
childhood tragedy had ﬁnally occurred. More than a decade later, a simple prompt that asked me for
“things I’ve needed to tell” had served as the key to unlock a dusty, neglected chapter of our lives, had
brought light to my darkness. That night, more than a decade later, cancer still did not fail to change my
perception of the world: I realized that family, often taken for granted, is life’s most cherished gift.
And so the next day, I sit here, not to tell you about my story, but about my family’s story. Cancer
isn’t a battle you ﬁght by yourself, a war you wage in seclusion. Cancer isn’t an illness you face in
solitude. Look around, you’re not alone in ﬁghting this daunting demon—you have your family, your
friends, your relatives. My story isn’t about my pain, my tears; it’s about my family’s. And so I pass my
family’s story down, and I tell you that it’s your turn: hold the hands of your loved ones, take each step
together, face each day as one, forge the next chapter of your lives, and united you shall stand.
Andre Sobel was a remarkable young man who had natural dignity, a promising
future and an unconventional sense of humor. Andre’s young life ended just one
year after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was 19. He was the beloved
son of Erwin and Valerie Sobel and brother to Simone.
Andre was well traveled, often seeking destinations that were frequented by his
favorite authors, like Samuel Beckett, St. Augustine and Franz Kafka. The books
Andre treasured were ﬁlled with his margin comments, underlinings and
asterisks, the stamp of his rich intellectual curiosity. But the ﬁnest of all his gifts
were his qualities of mercy and compassion.
To honor Andre, and out of their deep love and respect for him, his family
established the Andre Sobel River of Life Foundation and shortly thereafter the
Andre Sobel Essay Award. The purpose of the competition is to honor the young
survivors of a catastrophic illness. If a young person considered themselves to be
a “survivor” or were the companion of a survivor, they were invited to enter the
This year, several cash awards were granted. The ﬁrst place winner received a
$5,000 cash prize Smaller cash prizes were awarded to the runner-ups. The
cash award can be used in any way the recipient chooses.