I always hate introducing myself to people. Mostly because I do not have a filter. I share way too much way too soon. My story starts like every other story—with an accident. At 16 years old, I was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma in the soft tissue of my right shoulder. The only reason my doctors discovered it in time was that I hurt myself at work the week before. High school is difficult enough, but to have cancer your junior year? Unbelievable.
When we first got the news, I felt that my world was crashing down all around me. I didn't even consider that my mother was facing the potential loss of her child, or my sister losing her older sibling. I wasn't thinking about it, until someone pointed it out to me by saying, "So is your mom, like, a wreck? Is she drinking a lot?" (she was not, she was mainly crying and trying to make sure my sister and I were not too upset). The year that I was in treatment really affected my outlook on the world, but it also affected how I built and maintained relationships and friendships. I once had a girl ask me (post-diagnosis) if the type of cancer I had was the "typical kind," like she had seen in the movies. At first, I was furious—not so much about the fact that she believed that there was just one type of cancer, but more about the fact that the media treats all types of cancer equally.
I finished treatment and was declared "cancer-free" seven months after I turned seventeen. People always commend my ability to joke about my experiences with treatment. When talking to my therapist, I discovered that joking about my cancer improved my ability to endure the months of treatment and all the side effects. The more I joked, the happier my mood became, and overall, my humor helped people realize that my diagnosis wasn't the end of my world.
I learned that there were several things people did not know about having cancer as a young adult:
- We aren't all able to go bald in one go and look great doing it... When I first started losing my hair, my sister helped me shave it to a buzzcut, but it didn't all fall out at the same time. I walked around for a few weeks with these little tufts of hair all over my head. The only thing that got rid of them was wearing hats (which I learned rapidly).
- "Cancer-free" means we never have to worry about cancer again... Anyone who has had cancer can tell you that the term cancer-free is misleading. I am about to hit my three years with No Evidence of Disease (NED) date, and every pain I have, I end up worrying that the cancer is back with a vengeance.
- Cancer is not contagious... If you have a friend who's going through treatment, chances are, they want companionship. As one of the oldest kids in my pediatric unit, I had such a desperate need for a companion outside of my mother. Even though my mom is my best friend, she is still my mom.
- Along with #3, don't assume if someone has cancer that they have to be alone to heal... Some of my favorite memories from treatment are when my friends would come visit and just gossip for an hour or so. Face to face interaction with people my own age felt like such a luxury, and it really shouldn't have.
- Cancer is not a four-letter word... Don't talk about it with me in hushed, reverent tones, please. I want to be proud of what I went through, but I can't if you treat it like something I should be ashamed of.
- Don't call me strong... I literally just sat in various beds for almost a year, getting poison pumped into my body. The only strong moment I will admit to is how I had the strength to fight the temptation of stealing the therapy dogs.
- Chemo brain is so real and so annoying... I can't remember anything. In June, it will have been three years since I finished treatment, and my brain still feels like mush 75 percent of the time. I have 11 sticky notes on my computer, all containing random information that I really don't need to hold on to. I just have it in case any of the topics come up in conversation.
- We don't hate you if we don't agree to hang out when you're sick... My immunity during chemo was pretty much below zero at any given moment. While it sucks to not be able to hang out with close friends, I would have rather spent time talking on Skype with that friend instead of getting sick and ending up in the hospital for days on end (which did happen, at least twice).
- Cancer isn't "out of sight out of mind"... I know that after treatment, I have to go back for scans for at least 10 years to make sure I am okay. Additionally, most of my funny stories are from treatment, just because I lead a really boring life.
- Cancer isn't "Voldemort"... It needs to be talked about. I am hypervigilant of my friends and family when they are in pain, because I know how scary a diagnosis can be.
Overall, your friends with cancer are just like you. Just because they have cancer, doesn't mean they are any less the person you know and love. I discovered that treating a patient like a patient only leads to resentment and isolation.