This Is What It Feels Like to Be A Teenager With Cancer
Mara's life changed from a routine of internships and classes to hospital stays and fertility appointments, but she was determined not to let cancer control her.
Spring blossomed yet again, following another brutal Michigan winter. I found myself balancing an internship and a job in Ann Arbor. Feeling overwhelmed, I was massaging my neck, when I felt an odd bump just above my left collarbone. Huh. But I was about to be late for work (at a fitness studio and spa), so I decided to not worry about it just then.
When I arrived, I noticed the massage therapist on a break and asked her to quickly check out my bump. She felt my neck and explained, "The bump is not connected to any of your muscle tissues. It feels like a lymph node to me. Do you feel sick?"
After a quick look at WebMD that night, my usual nonchalant mentality about sickness was gone. I found tears in my eyes. This was my first inclination of the possibility of having cancer. My emotions grew louder as I flashed back to a thought of my beautiful Aunt Lisa, who lost her admirable battle to breast cancer earlier that year. And somehow, it was like I already knew-- a foreshadow of what my next seven months would entail. My world was already upside down due to my own personal series of unfortunate events that preceded this icing on the cake-- or maybe it was the journey out of my hardship. Maybe this was my ascent to a balanced mind.
Despite this fear, I still waited a whole three weeks to get my bump checked out. My doctor seemed concerned and I immediately underwent CAT scans and a surgery for a lymph node biopsy.
Then, on June 29, 2015, I received a phone call.
"We'd like to discuss the results in person today."
I asked, "Can you please just tell me over the phone? I have to be in Ann Arbor."
It was then that I really knew. I had a hard time processing anything the entire day. I could not grasp the reality of my diagnosis with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 19. I wished I would not have to try to understand. But this was now my reality.
After meeting with my general practitioner for results, my initial reaction was subtle. It wasn't until I met my oncologist for the first time that my calm demeanor collapsed. During the meeting I learned more about the specifics of my diagnosis. And I really lost it when he told me I would loose my hair. I quickly moved out of the stage of denial into the stage of "WHY ME?!" Gone my confidence, gone my beautiful hair. I was stripped of every emotion. I had so many that I no longer knew how to feel.
That summer wasn't recognizable alongside other 19-year-olds. Their summers were filled with part-time jobs, the beach, pool parties and sunshine. My summer was filled with sterile procedures, endless pokes, IV bags, cancer perks, biopsies, blood drawings, ultrasounds, fertility appointments ("But I'm only 19, Doc!") looks of pity, "cancer texts," doctor appointments, tests and, of course, chemotherapy treatment. During that time in my life, every day was a "cancer day." I surely did not feel like I was 19 at all..
Eventually, I had to come to terms with my cancer. That was when I decided I would not let my cancer define who I was, but rather make cancer a journey of knowledge, strength and wisdom. I began to learn. I decided to become a vegan and read, read, read.I educated myself on the aspects of fighting cancer that I could control, even when it came to hair loss, a common side effect of ABDV chemo.
As much as I believed in my thick hair to overcome the challenge, within just a few weeks I began to loose my identity. One strand at a time.
On August 23, 2015 I journaled a pivotal event in my cancer journey. The following is a transcription of what I wrote that day:
- "Today I shaved my head…my biggest worry throughout the entire process of fighting hodgkin's lymphoma cancer. I anticipated this day as the hardest day in my survival journey; but as I fall asleep with my bald head resting on my pillow, I can’t stop smiling because today was actually a wonderful day. I woke up surrounded by my beautiful friends and family. They sat with me through the entire process, which was anything but sad. It was a happy goodbye, a "see you later." They gave me endless energy and spirit. As hard as it was to cope with letting my favorite feature go, I gained something today. I gained my
- that day. I went to a spinning class later today in a hat but was clearly bald underneath. It was liberating to realize that I was proud of what I looked like and I honestly didn't care what anyone else thought.
- Tonight I go to sleep feeling as free as I have ever felt in my entire life.
- And I feel happy. I feel on my worst day, I can be confident in myself because I am confident
- my favorite, defining feature. I can beat anything. I can do anything. I am not afraid of who I am or what the world may think of me or the way I look. I am me. I am a survivor. I am a fighter. I am a badass. I am bald. I am 100x stronger today than I was yesterday and tomorrow I will wake up 100x stronger again. At the end of the day, I have my beautiful, beautiful friends and family. Tomorrow is a new day of my bald journey and I am so excited."
Here's my message to the future students fighting cancer in college: there will be some really hard days balancing schoolwork, handling uncomfortable side effects and living in a place bursting with activities you may not be able to join in. It will be difficult to relate to other college students who prioritize life so differently than your mandatory, new mentality– but a special humming bird once taught me everything in life is relative.
That midterm exam is not exactly the "worst thing that ever happened" and stressing about small stuff will be at the bottom of your to-do list. In fact, you might even come to embrace schoolwork, in place of resenting it. I feel so thankful I was able to come back to school, allowing me to have a deeper appreciation for something so mindless as going to class.
I am a firm believer that shit happens to everyone. Life happens. Nevertheless, it is important- in any situation- to play the cards we are dealt.
Always remember: This Too Shall Pass.
Are you a young adult cancer survivor or fighter? Share your experience in the comments below.
Photo courtesy of the author.