In January 2007, I looked in the huge, icy blue eyes of an emergency room doctor. “Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia,” she said to me and my parents in a disturbingly nonchalant tone. My whole world became numb as I smiled at her and nodded as she told us it was usually treatable and there is a two-year treatment protocol that a high risk, thirteen-year-old patient like me would undergo.
I remember telling my dad after about a month of treatment, after I had lost twenty pounds and all of my hair, “Maybe it is a good thing this happened to me. It will set me apart, it’ll be something special about me.” I’ll never forget my dad’s response as he looked back at me without the smile I had anticipated; “You didn’t need cancer to show the world how special you are.”
At the time I did not believe my dad. For my entire high school career (my two years on treatment and the next two years recovering physically and emotionally), I did not think I would ever be defined by something other than my diagnosis. I hated playing the sick role and feeling that this was what defined me as a daughter, sister, friend, and classmate. I resolved to go to college and never forget about my time on treatment completely, but after having spent almost every minute of every day in high school reflecting on my diagnosis, I went to college with the intent of never telling a soul about the living hell I had experienced fighting cancer.
I avoided discussing high school
with new friends in college and would have to hide my extreme jealousy and agitation when people talked about all of their typical teenage experiences. I had little to add to these conversations and would brush them off with a smile, chiming in with a simple, “I hated high school!” I could not explain my germaphobia, my passion for pediatric cancer research, or my portacath scar, and set out to seem as “normal” as possible.
The truth was, I was humiliated that I was a cancer survivor. I did not want people to pity me, picture me sickly and bald, or be as repulsed by my high school self as I was.
Most of the time, this avoidance worked exactly as I wanted it to. Only a select few friends were let into my real world, the one where I worry each time I have swollen glands
, the one where I fear that I may never be able to have children
one day, the one where I feel sick to my stomach over regret at how my illness impacted my younger brothers and parents.
Years later I have to wonder: how many hours have I spent wondering who would start pitying me if they found out that I had cancer? How many times have I been hurt by insensitive comments but refused to speak up for fear of looking weak?
I have had random spring breakers point to the scar on my chest, laughing at the “hickey” they believed it to be. I have taken all of the pictures of myself from 2007 to 2009 off of the walls in my house and torn out pages from my high school yearbook. I have had to pretend the most intense medical procedure I have gone through is the extraction of my tonsils.
Over the years, I repressed the memories of cancer so successfully that most days I myself I forget I am a cancer survivor. I start to forget that I have not lived a typical suburban American life and that my parents and brothers were not forced to watch their greatest fear play out in front of them.
These days are inevitable. I am accepting that it is okay to forget for a while. I am learning to meld together the piece of myself that desires normalcy with the piece of myself that represents my fight, my drive, and my determination.
I had cancer and every day I’m learning to say it louder.
Did you have to cope with cancer and school? If so, tell us what your experiences were like in the comments below!
Photo courtesy of Ryan Tauss