MY HOLOCAUST LEGACY: A BLESSING, NOT A BURDEN
By Alex Kor, D.P.M., M.S.
Volume 2, Issue 1, Summer 2013, Cancer InCytes Magazine
As the son of two Holocaust survivors, the strength to persevere against tremendous adversity coursed through his veins. Alex Kor would need that very fortitude when he was faced with testicular cancer at the age of 26, while he was in podiatry school. What could have ended his career, and life, would not. Alex gratefully reflects upon his family’s legacy against the odds.
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The Hardest Test
“I am a survivor. Your father is a survivor. You will be a survivor. You can beat this!” In June of 1987, after having surgery and prior to starting chemotherapy for testicular cancer, my mother uttered these words to me. As I contemplated her inspirational effort, while lying in a hospital bed in Chicago, a variety of thoughts consumed me. Would I be able to resume my medical education? Would I need more surgery? Would I be able to tolerate chemotherapy? Would I indeed be able to successfully fight cancer and survive?
At the age of 26, I was immersed in my 2nd year of podiatry school. Suddenly, I had encountered a new foe: cancer. As a former college tennis player, I was used to competition, but these were “un-charted waters.” While contemplating my future, I was told that a post-operative CT scan had discovered a “lesion” on the right upper lobe of my lung. “Don’t worry! You will start chemotherapy next week.” These words did not calm me. If I needed chemotherapy, I wanted to begin as soon as possible.
With CT scans in hand, I immediately flew to Indianapolis, Indiana. A friend had suggested that I consider seeking the opinion of Dr. Larry Einhorn, an Oncologist at the I.U. Medical Center. After an initial evaluation, I started chemotherapy on the following day and was enrolled in a study that included 3 cycles of chemotherapy. I was unsure what to expect, but I had been warned about the nausea and vomiting. My mother arrived on the morning of my initial treatment with her positive attitude that reinvigorated me. Other than one vomiting episode, my chemotherapy was without incident.
My health status was uncertain as I started my third year of training. I could not foresee missing a year of school. I had completed the chemotherapy, had lost all of my hair, and was wearing a wig that resembled the likes of Ted Koppel. Nonetheless, I returned to school with no guarantee that I could complete the year. Then, in late September, a CT scan revealed that the chemotherapy had been successful and that no additional surgery would be needed. By late October of 1987, my hair had re-grown, and I gladly donated my hairpiece for a friend's Halloween costume.
As I started my last year of podiatry school, my prognosis was excellent. I was now focused on securing a residency. My cancer was "ancient history," and I did not intend to discuss the details during any residency interview. I wanted to be chosen for a residency on my merits. However, during one residency interview, the program had discovered that I was a recent cancer survivor. Suggesting that the cancer could re-occur during the residency and that I might be a liability, I was asked if I was a worthwhile risk for selection. Biting my tongue, I politely answered the question but I was shocked by the notion.
A Legacy Against the Odds
Approximately ten years after having surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer, I was living and practicing podiatric medicine in Denver, CO. I was asked to attend a 2nd generation meeting for descendants of Holocaust survivors. During the meeting, each participant was asked to recall their experiences as a son or daughter of Holocaust survivors. To my great surprise, each person had entertained suicidal thoughts. When I was asked to speak, I emphasized that my holocaust experiences were only positive. That is, I had always believed that having two parents who survived the Holocaust was one of the reasons that I beat cancer. My parents’ past has never been a burden; it is a blessing for me.
As a child of two Holocaust survivors, I was taught that life is full of challenges. From the time that I was a child, both of my parents emphasized that hard work, determination, and perseverance were qualities that would endure. Thus, when I had to battle cancer at the age of 26 and desired to continue my medical education, I knew that I was being tested. I had to overcome this adversity because being successful would make me a stronger person. Now, 25 years later, I know that I am one of the lucky ones. When I encounter difficult situations, I always remind myself that I am, indeed, a survivor. This inner strength is my legacy.
Alex Kor, D.P.M., M.S., is a podiatrist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. His parents were Holocaust survivors. His mother, Eva Kor*, is a survivor of the infamous Twin Studies at Auschwitz, conducted by Joseph Mengele (“The Angel of Death”), in which young twin children were experimented upon.
*Read about Eva Kor speaking to doctors about medical ethics: