Like most teen-agers about to graduate from high school, Dorian Korz has challenges to tackle.
He is determined to leave Mount Hebron High School the way he entered it -- as an "A" student. He is looking forward to four years at UMBC, possibly as a biology major. He envisions medical studies after that.
He also is set on revamping his tennis game, having taken his coach's advice to trade a defensive, baseline strategy for a more aggressive, serve-and-volley style. First-year Hebron coach Cliff Bernstein was so impressed by Korz's studious approach to the game that he asked him to return to Hebron next year as an assistant coach. Korz, honored by the request, is eager to come back.
Korz talks excitedly about the future. But he can't take his eyes off the past, which has dealt him haunting lessons no 17-year-old should have to learn.
Through three operations, three months of radiation treatments and an endless supply of perseverance and prayers, Korz has battled cancer.
Listen to a teen-ager meeting the challenge of a lifetime and sounding wise beyond his years.
"Nothing is as serious as being faced with near death when you're a child," he says. "It changes your attitude. When you're a kid, you think you're invincible. It shocks you to find out you're just as vulnerable as anyone else. It totally opens your eyes.
"I don't take anything for granted anymore. Every day is another day that's wonderful."
He remembers the first time his mother noticed the lump under his chin, while they were sharing a pizza when he was in the seventh grade. He remembers the anxiety that gripped him and his family as they searched for answers from doctors as near as Baltimore and as far away as Sweden. He recalls the fear he felt after the first operation, when the surgery did not make his double chin disappear.
Finally, after Korz's parents found the surgeon they wanted, a biopsy revealed a tennis-ball-sized tumor -- an unusual growth called a fibromatosa -- beneath his tongue. The second time Korz was operated on in fall 1988, surgeons had to cut his chin and throat to get to the growth, which does not spread like most cancers, but attacks bones and muscle tissue locally. The surgery took 11 hours. It was a success.
Until nine months later, early in Korz's freshman year at Hebron, when a follow-up examination showed that two spots had reappeared.
Back to the operating table he went for a third time. This time, the surgery cost Korz part of his tongue. Thirty radiation treatments followed.
"I used to have dreams about eating normal food, and it all tasted like cardboard. Everything tasted terrible," said Korz, whose full head of blond hair was not affected by the treatments.
Three years have passed since his last treatment, with no sign of any tumor. But the Korz family lives with a different kind of fear these days -- the fear of the unknown. Every four months, Korz must undergo a magnetic resonance imaging to make sure his nightmare hasn't returned. Every four months, he confronts the scariest part of his past all over again.
"This has aged me about a million years and given me a thousand gray hairs," says his father, John Korz. "And every time we go back [for an MRI], it's like there is a big set of doors that
we don't want to open."
"My doctor says there is a good chance of a recurrence. The thought is sitting there in the back of my mind right now," says Dorian Korz, who faces these periodic visits for the rest of his life. "The waiting is the worst part. When I'm in the doctor's office, I get so nervous my mom says I'm hot to the touch."
The tumor has altered Korz's life in numerous ways. The surgeries robbed him of his singing voice. Because a plate had to be inserted in his chin to hold his jaw in place, Korz was forced to give up contact sports. That meant he had to hang up the brown belt he had earned in karate and quit soccer, which he had played for years.
It also made his adjustment to high school tougher. He spent most of his freshman year studying at home with a tutor. When he rejoined his classmates as a sophomore, Korz said, he felt a year behind socially. His surgical scars made him feel more self-conscious.
Korz rebounded impressively, though, with the same quality his parents say pulled him through his ordeal -- a relentlessly positive outlook. It's the quality that helps Korz make friends with ease, a quality that keeps his sense of humor intact. He credits his classmates for making his transition easy.
"Dorian has never complained," says Taisa Korz, his mother. "He has never said, 'Why me?' He says, 'If this happened to me, maybe it won't happen to somebody else.' He takes everything in such good stride. He is 17 going on 30. He is my hero."
Dorian kept up his "A" work in the classroom. He decided to try tennis, and after starting as the Vikings' seventh-seeded player as a sophomore, he emerged as Hebron's No. 1 singles player this spring. Last year, he was inducted into the National Honor Society.
"He has such charisma and is respected so much by the other kids," says Bernstein. "After a while, I relied on Dorian alone as the leader and the person I'd go to to learn more about the other kids."
Hebron's No. 2 singles player, David Mitchell, said: "He's a solid player and the leader on this team. You've got to respect his determination. He's not the most overpowering player, but if you make a mistake, he makes you pay for it."
Korz's mind wanders. One minute, he is imagining himself rushing the net and winning a point with a well-placed passing shot. The next minute, he sees himself teaching a young player how to do the same thing. The next minute, he is wondering where a career in medicine might take him, where the rest of his life will lead him.
He is dreaming about the future, thankful he can look in that direction.
"It's not that big of a handicap," he says. "There are people a lot worse off than I am. Maybe I can give them inspiration or a reason not to give up hope. Maybe they'll push that extra edge, and strive to overcome whatever they have to overcome. I don't want anybody to feel sorry for me."