When Nicole was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma at age 19, she knew that cancer was going to cause her to grow up quickly - but not this quickly. Find out how Nicole dealt with the emotional and physical challenges of being a young adult cancer survivor.
"You grow up fast when something this big happens to you." That's a piece of advice I got from almost everybody in the early months of my battle with cancer, from other survivors, adults, even people my own age. It's a known fact about people who go through something life-threatening at a young age: they mature and adapt to the stressors of life that don't come for most until much later down the line. So when I was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's lymphoma at age age nineteen, I expected to grow up in the process.
I guess I just didn't expect to grow up this much.
I had eight months of treatment total, six months of intense chemotherapy, a rest month, and three weeks of radiation. Once I was done, I felt like I was handed a ticket to a new life. Doors were opening up everywhere for me: I went back to school to finish my degree, I began working again, I regularly socialized with friends to make up for the time I had lost with them. I woke up early every morning just to experience the day, even if I didn't have a task to accomplish. I was in love with living life without the stifling confines of my disease or my treatment.
I was so busy living that I didn't notice when my period didn't return. I had lost my regular period during chemotherapy and radiation, but this is often perceived as normal as treatment can change the way those functions work temporarily. Even months and years out of treatment, it could still be categorized as a normal complication of treatment, with the female in question having a completely normal hormone balance and ovarian function.
I realized something was wrong when I started getting hot flashes.
I would be sitting in a lecture at my college, or lying in bed, or driving when I would feel an intense sear of heat grip my chest and my face, then slowly pass. I began to realize that the flashes came when I had chocolate, or soda- triggers I later related to my mom, who is going through menopause. We realized our symptoms lined up. After going through the discovery of my cancer, I've become the type to not leave any symptom unchecked. My oncologist immediately referred me to an endocrinologist, a doctor who studies hormones.
After multiple tests, trials and checks of my hormone levels, I got a phone call from my oncologist. "I know this isn't the news you were hoping to hear," she said to me as she told me the results of my tests. To put it simply, my body no longer produces steady streams of estrogen. I no longer ovulate. I have a condition known as Premature Ovarian Failure, or early menopause.
I was suddenly "a woman of a certain age." That age was twenty.
When you discover you have cancer, you feel like a zebra in a herd of giraffes.
Everything about you feels different, isolated, strange. Your life becomes so drastically unlike those of your peers that it can be hard to relate to them after your experiences. I was just starting to come back to the world of "average" nineteen-year-olds when I discovered I had the body of a woman over 50, and I learned that I might never naturally conceive a child. Suddenly, my distance from my peers grew by miles.
I grieved the loss (and still continue to). Like dealing with the news of my cancer, I have good moments with this fact and bad moments. In my worst moments, I think realistically about what the next years of my life will bring. I am twenty-one now. I'm at the dawn of a new era in life. I'll soon see my friends marry and reveal news of their first pregnancies, their seconds, their thirds. And I can't anticipate how I'll feel about that, so I don't try.
I often try not to think about "the list"- the list of things that cancer took from me, or changed. The list is long, and often when I'm thinking of just one thing that cancer changed about my life, the rest come toppling on me in waves. Cancer is a power struggle, when you feel like you lose power against it, your outlook becomes bleak. But I've beat cancer in my lifetime- I know how to win. If you think positively about it, cancer doesn't have that power anymore. Cancer loses.
On my best nights dealing with my condition, I realize the opportunity it's given me. And again, I can't predict how my future will play out, but I believe things happen for a reason. My life can still be fruitful through this loss. Maybe I am meant to improve the life of a child who need it by adopting. Maybe I will help lead the way for other women like me by undergoing clinical trials and study. Maybe I'll conceive - there's still a small chance I will. Maybe I'll join a support group, or speak about this experience, or maybe I'll study obstetrics down the line. I have always known that I have wanted to take part in the life experience that is pregnancy, and I know I will. The exact path remains a mystery for now, and while I'm young, I'm okay with that. I'm still busy seizing every day.
Cancer did age my body, and my mind.
Cancer did change my life for the better and for the worse. But there is one thing that happened when cancer left my body and I completed treatment: I became young again. I realized that this was my re-do on life, something that so few people get to experience. I was youthful, and I felt better than I had in years, despite lingering issues from treatment. I had learned so much that allowed me to see everything with crispness and hope and joy, which is something I never had before. Cancer aged me, but in a way through cancer I'm reborn.
Are you a young adult cancer survivor? How did you deal with how quickly cancer aged you? Share your story in the comments below.