With a résumé that can speak for itself, Sarah Z. Salem, a senior architecture major, hardly needs an introduction: She’s a former chapter president of the American Institute of Architecture Students at Temple, former intern for Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, an award-winning Philly-based architectural firm, and the team captain and a founding member of student-run philanthropic architecture organization Freedom By Design, which just completed its first project – an in-home ramp for a disable Navy lieutenant.
Most recently, Salem earned her place as the No. 1 participant at Temple’s Relay For Life 2010 when she, as a FBD teammate, raised nearly $3,000 toward the American Cancer Society’s fight to find a cure for the disease that, Salem said, “affects every person in their lifetime, directly or indirectly.”
For Salem, that link to cancer is direct: She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late-December 2008. She underwent surgery and treatments, only to learn at her nine-month check-up that her body had relapsed. Just one day after receiving one of her chemo treatments at the hospital she goes to in New York, Salem sat down to talk about the reasons she’s been Relaying since high school and why she refuses to let cancer control her life.
The Temple News: Why was your participation in Relay so important?
Sarah Z. Salem: Relay is a great way to inform people our age that we’re not invincible. Unfortunately, cancer in your twenties is probably more of a shock than cancer in your sixties or seventies, and we are so prone to thinking how invincible we are. And something like that happens, and it basically derails your life completely. … Being on the side of needing the help, it’s really important to help [participants] realize, “You guys just did an amazing job.” They have no idea how grateful myself and the entire cancer community are for just someone caring, not even ’cause they have to but ’cause they want to.
TTN: Can you share a little bit about your experience with cancer?
SZS: The first time I got cancer, it was kind of like, I was very naive about it. I didn’t have a genetic history, so I thought it was just a hiccup. And then, being re-diagnosed has definitely been a lot harder, and Relay was harder, only because it was the first time I wasn’t wearing my scarf [and] I was very, I guess, true to what I was going through. Relay was only tough because after all that excitement, I still went home knowing I was still in the middle of a pretty tough fight.
And I mean, I would love to say that it’s always easy, and you know, I’m always smiling about it, but you feel like, at 23 – or when I was first diagnosed, I was 21 – that you’re losing such an important time in your life. I mean, this is why I try so hard to stay active. It’s ’cause I feel like, I don’t want cancer to derail me from what I want to do. I would be doing these things with FBD and going to school full-time regardless of if I had cancer or not, so I don’t want that to be the one reason why I’m not staying active in my life.
TTN: If you had to say there’s a mantra that you’re now living by – or have always lived by – what would you say it is?
SZS: I would say it’s acceptance, being fluid with your life … recognizing that life is gray. Life can come at you and change everything and change everything you’ve ever held true. There’s this quote that I heard in an [Intellectual Heritage] class, out of all classes, but it really has stuck with me. It’s like, “Truth is a circumstance, not a spot.”
And really, and I’m not just saying this because it’s what people want to hear, but I am truly truly thankful in every degree. I know how sincerely blessed I am, and I’m thankful every day for that – from the parents I have to the doctors to the treatments to my friends. Just even, the amount of knowledge I had going into this. Just the optimism, the positivity – you can prescribe it for yourself, but it’s always there when it needs to be there [when you have positive people around you]. So, I’m so thankful for that, very very thankful for that, and humbled, too.
Chelsea Calhoun can be reached at email@example.com.