I'm a Retinoblastoma Cancer Survivor | My Inspiring Life Story

Originally Posted: April, 25, 2014

My name is Zaakirah (pronounced zaa-key-ra); in Arabic, it means the hereafter. I was born in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on December 20th, almost four weeks prematurely. When I was nine months old, I was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare eye cancer. Shortly after, my right eye was surgically removed.  Since then I have worn a prosthetic eye in my right eye. As a result of radiation therapy, I lost my hearing resulting in a mild hearing loss, so I also wear hearing aids in both ears. By the age of 22, I traveled to eight countries.

Me at 9 months old, diagnosed with Retinoblastoma. The image my mom took that first spotted the white dot instead of a red dot. | My Inspiring Cancer Story | Zaakirah Nayyar

Me at 9 months old, diagnosed with Retinoblastoma. The image my mom took that first spotted the white dot instead of a red dot. | My Inspiring Cancer Story | Zaakirah Nayyar

For the longest time, I limited myself. I never put much emphasis on the word survivor. It took a really long time to connect the dots that survivor is actually a positive thing; I made it through something really rare. I was so focused on the negativity, because, that’s what the light was shined upon— disabilities; vision disabilities, hearing disabilities, which could lead to other disabilities and even death.  But there is so much more to life than to focus on that. I chose to remove that word from my vocabulary.

My mother celebrated my birthday every year, even the years I did not want to do anything. It was a reminder that I was special, that I had a greater purpose, that I made it another year and that my life has value. It wasn’t until I chose to tell people that I am a cancer survivor that I started hearing and believing loving phrases like “You are so inspiring,” “You are a miracle” and “You are amazing.” Then it clicked: My purpose in life is to inspire!

At six-years-old, I was given my first camera—a Kodak Polaroid, by my mother. From there on, nothing could stop me from photographing everyone, everything and every place I went. With a camera, I could allow those in my life and around the world to see life as I do through my vision. 

As a youth, I started with travel photography, then capturing candid moments of close friends and family. As a quiet and introverted child, it worked out well.  By middle school, I considered going to school for psychology, social work or something similar because of my ability to be a good listener and a good friend to those in need. 

A selfie I took with my new professional camera. My Cancer Story | Zaakirah Nayyar

A selfie I took with my new professional camera. My Cancer Story | Zaakirah Nayyar

By the time I attended my second technical high school, I chose to study in the Commercial Photography program. There, I was introduced to a whole new digital world of photography. Later, I decided to study professional photography in Washington D.C. This was my first time living out of state and living alone. Along the way, I received opportunities to photograph star personalities at star-studded events. I had always connected well with people and found such joy in photographing, so it was definitely meant to be. 

My parents ensured I believed that there is a bigger world out there than the world we live. It was not until high school that I received my first opportunity to travel out of the country to see that for myself; before, I was close minded about expanding trips due to fear of not being safe. The first country I visited was Costa Rica, with a group for deaf, hard of hearing, and sign language enthusiasts. That was such a great experience, and I felt so comfortable that it opened up another opportunity for me. Shortly after that, I traveled as a student ambassador on a two-week European tour through the United Kingdom, France, and Italy. The most life-changing travel experience was when I went to Ghana after high school, for two months in the summer on a volunteer service trip; our group stayed with a homestay family. Summer 2014, I planned my first independent endeavor and photographic excursion to Senegal and The Gambia, with the goal of giving back by teaching photography to the youth and sharing photos. Little did I know that this would be a personal trip and the place where I met my husband.

With every trip, there were plenty of difficulties with hearing and vision such as adjusting to different climates that affect the hearing aid batteries, moving too quickly, misplacing the hearing aid, feeling left out, feeling scared and uncertain. Every situation has only made me more confident, stronger with communication, such as times when I cannot hear or comprehend dialect in loud environments.

The same thing applies for overcoming vision difficulties. As a child, there were times where I was still adjusting to the prosthesis and whenever I was bothered with it, I would just take it out and hand it over to my caregiver. That was my way of dealing with life ever since- hand it over to God.

Photo by Tina Givons of Givons Photography | My Inspiring Cancer Survivor Story

The older I get, the more I realize it’s about knowing your capabilities. There are times where I have been denied, doubted and bullied, called names such as Lazy Eyed, Cross-Eyed, and Four Eyes. I made it past that by knowing my purpose, my role, what makes me special and what makes me happy. That’s what matters the most; making that conscious decision to be healthy and happy while educating and inspiring people along the way.  Life is too short to take it too seriously. With all the lemons life has given me, I feel ready to conquer the challenges and fulfill my destiny. Life could be worse, but I am forever grateful to be a survivor.

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