Berlin Gutenkauf, a senior at Wilson High, during her trip to Bali in summer 2023. Photo courtesy of Berlin Gutenkauf.

Whether you call it courage, toughness, or determination, Berlin Gutenkauf has it.

The Wilson High senior has endured more adversity than most after spending much of her life battling brain cancer, yet she refuses to take no for an answer. With seemingly boundless ambition, Berlin has faced life’s challenges with grace and humility. The type of person who wants to do everything — except tell you about it.

Her first surgery was at age 5, when doctors successfully removed a tumor from her brain. For a while, things were okay. She was an active kid from an athletic family, taking a particular interest in soccer and cross country.

Then during her freshman year at Wilson, things changed. Berlin began having seizures, a sign that a tumor had returned. Only this time, it was cancer.

When she received the diagnosis last October, it was devastating news to Berlin’s mom, Natalie. She reacted the way any mother would, with fear and concern for her daughter. Natalie admits that the stress of her daughter’s condition caused her bouts of depression, but Berlin took the news in stride, and has maintained an upbeat perspective throughout.

“Berlin has not for one minute, since she’s been 5, felt sorry for herself,” Natalie said. “One of my favorite things she told me when we found out that her tumor was cancer and she would have to do treatments, she told me ‘Well, I think that’s a later problem.’ And I thought that was so beautiful. When it’s necessary to deal with it, we will, but it’s a later problem. She’s had that attitude about everything and it’s just been so refreshing.

“She’s living her life today.”

Earlier this year, Berlin underwent multiple craniotomies, a procedure that involves temporarily removing a piece of the skull. Berlin then sat with sensors all over her brain and endured repeated seizures, allowing her doctors to monitor the activity.

Her treatment then included chemotherapy and seven weeks of proton radiation treatment in San Diego, delivered five days a week.

While Berlin was confined to hospitals, doctor’s offices, and a shared room with her mom at the Ronald McDonald House, she had her eyes set somewhere else. Somewhere on the other side of the world, in fact.

“After getting treated and doing all this stuff to be able to live my life, I’m like, why am I not gonna live it?” Berlin wondered. “I went through chemo and radiation to get rid of the issues so I can live my life regularly, so I might as well live it and do everything I want to do.”

With that spirit inside her, she spent the final weeks of summer fulfilling a lifelong dream. At just 17 years old, she traveled by herself to Bali, working with the International Volunteer HQ’s Sea Turtle Conservation project.

“I’ve really wanted to go on a trip to go see more of the world, and I thought this was a perfect opportunity for me to be able to do something that I really want to do, and that also helps our environment,” she explained. “It definitely was an awesome experience, the whole thing was like nothing I could have expected.”

Berlin’s doctors were fully supportive of her trip, and she even continued taking oral chemo treatments while in Bali. Natalie says that at first she was resistant to the idea of her daughter flying halfway across the world by herself. But ultimately, she knew it was an opportunity for Berlin to live out a childhood dream after a challenging few months.

“You know, my kid’s got brain cancer, so my thermometer for what is shocking and scary is already pretty maxed out,” Natalie admitted. “This summer with the cancer and the two craniotomies and all the testing they did on her, it was crazy. So I was just so happy that she had something to look forward to. Something other than more doctor’s appointments, more testing, and more chemo.”

During her trip, Berlin met fellow volunteers from all over the world, spending three weeks working to protect and preserve some of Bali’s most treasured wildlife.

During her visit, she was captivated by the island’s culture. She enjoyed sunsets on the beach, multiple rounds of snorkeling, and she even snuck in a cooking class on her final day, hoping to learn more about the Indonesian cuisine she’d come to love. Some of her favorite memories from the trip were spent in taxi cabs, hearing stories from the drivers who’d spent their entire lives on the islands.

Berlin Gutenkauf, a senior at Wilson High, during her trip to Bali in summer 2023. Photo courtesy of Berlin Gutenkauf.

When she returned home to Long Beach to begin her senior year, she jumped right back into life as a full-time student-athlete. Berlin began helping out at cross country meets and practices in the fall, then returned to the girls’ soccer team after 18 months away from the sport.

C.J. Brewer, a longtime coach at Wilson High, has known the Gutenkauf family for years. He coached Berlin’s older sister, Gaby, on the soccer team at St. Joseph, and has now coached Berlin for cross country and track and field during her high school career. Brewer said he’s been impressed with her toughness in the face of significant medical challenges.

“The thing with (Berlin) is, she’s lived with it her whole life. She had surgery as a little kid, so ever since she can remember she’s had this,” Brewer said. “This is her normal and she’s learned how to cope with it and deal with it. And because of that, she’s tough as nails.”

Berlin is almost too tough for her own good. The day after she got home from her radiation treatments, she tried to pick up a shift at work to help pay for her trip to Bali. She would also relentlessly ask her doctors for clearance to participate in her newfound passion: the high jump.

Berlin discovered the sport as a 10th grader, and despite very little training or experience in the event, she took third place at the Moore League finals and advanced to the CIF-Southern Section prelims. She spent the next year practicing the high jump to prepare for her junior season, and was excited to see how far she could advance with proper training and practice.

“If you don’t know, high jump is jumping as high as you can over a bar, then landing on your head and shoulders,” Berlin explained. “A month after my first craniotomy we asked my doctor if I could high jump, and they told me that would be really bad, because if I land wrong the bone could come out of place where they cut it. And I understood, but it was really unfortunate.”

So in the interest of keeping her skull intact, Berlin was forced to sit out her junior year.

During the first few months of this school year, she’s gradually made her way back to form on the soccer field, and said she loves being back with her teammates. Plus, she recently got some good news from her doctors who cleared her to resume the high jump in the spring.

“My doctors are like, go all in. As long as you’re good, we’re good with you doing your thing,” Berlin said. “So that’s really exciting.”

Brewer and Bruce Perret will be coaching Berlin in the high jump this spring, with the goal of clearing a new personal-best mark of 5 feet. After months of treatment, testing, and the emotional turmoil that comes with it, Berlin is happy to have her schedule filled with things she actually enjoys doing. Sports allows her to set goals, challenge herself, and see progress through hard work–without cancer as the focus.

“We don’t talk about it. The team doesn’t talk about it,” Brewer said. “Her close friends know, but not everyone on the team even knows what she’s going through. She’s surrounded by it every day, so when she’s with us, it’s her escape.”

Berlin isn’t sure of her plans for after high school, but she hopes to continue traveling and exploring other parts of the world. For now, she’s staying busy as a student and an athlete who doesn’t take her opportunities for granted.

Her cancer remains an ongoing battle, but in her own words, that’s a “later problem.” Rather than waste time worrying about tomorrow, she’s living today.