In 'cure' zone, on a clear path

For ROBERTO MARTINEZ, 21, cancer has been a test of faith, an opportunity to change direction based on a profound understanding of what's truly important. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the age of 17 and has just passed the five-year mark, which theoretically puts him safely in the "cure" zone.

Not that it was easy, hearing he had cancer. "I was shocked," he says. "Cancer so young. Why me? Why did I get cancer?"

As he tried to figure out that mystery, he started to see life in a new way. He had been a good student at L.A.'s Cathedral High School. His plan was to become a lawyer because lawyers make a lot of money. "I wanted a cool car," he says. "I wanted to buy things. But in the hospital, I thought that even if I had a lot of money, I wouldn't be able to buy my health, my life."

The people in his life rallied when he was sick. During four months of chemotherapy, his mother seldom left his side, his father and brother were there as often as possible, his little sister made drawings to cheer him up. "The neighbors would take care of my sister and my brother, and the church would pray for me," he says. His schoolmates visited so often the hospital had to limit visitors to five at a time. A nurse -- his name was Tony -- administered chemotherapy, talking him through the sick times, making him laugh, always assuring Martinez he'd get through it and be OK. Martinez began to think about what he would do if he overcame the cancer. Becoming wealthy lost its appeal. "I wanted to make people feel better, the way that nurse made me feel," he says. "I'm going to be an oncology nurse."

As he completes the course work that will get him into nursing school, he does volunteer work for Livestrong, the Lance Armstrong foundation, posting cancer information on the website in Spanish. He has been uninsured since he turned 21; he hopes to be approved for MediCal insurance. So a nursing career has a practical benefit too. Full-time nursing jobs generally come with good health insurance.

So far, he has had no late effects from treatment. He's not sure if he'll be able to have children. "If God wants me to have children, I will," he says. "Later on, I wouldn't mind going to adopt."

And he thinks he's figuring out the answer to that question, "Why me?" "I used to pray to God and ask: 'If I've been good, why have you punished me?' " he says. "OK. Now I know. A lot of doors have opened for me. The rewards come later."

-- Susan Brink

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