As a cancer survivor, I’ve found that my memories of what I went through are like all these balloons in my mind: they float up at random times and no matter how much I try to push them back down into the background, something always triggers them to float back up.
If we are talking about the fact that the American Red Cross is running a blood drive at Duke and my friends are debating whether to donate blood, all I can think is how many bags of platelets and red blood cells I got and how I want them to donate blood so that they can save lives like mine that would otherwise not have lasted if it were not for people who donate... When the student health clinic comes to give free flu shots and everyone at my dinner table starts talking about how they hate needles, all I can think of is the hundreds of needles that have pierced my skin… The list goes on and on. I thought it would be weird, and I thought people would think of me differently, if I just brought up random things about my treatment related to the conversation. I would have trouble in trying to describe my high school experience or the activities I did (which is basically all you talk about the first week) without bringing up my experiences with cancer. Basically, I was finding it hard to talk about myself. I thought I couldn’t talk about my experiences and still be able to start over without being branded as “that girl who had cancer.”
For me, I have just started college and I was so unsure of what I wanted to do about this big secret of mine: the fact I survived cancer twice. I had no idea if I could or should talk about it with people. My family was curious as to what I wanted to do about it too. Do I tell people if it comes up in a conversation and deal with the ooohhhhss and ahhhs and questions, deal with the fact that people can never understand even if I tell them? Or do I keep it to myself and take this as an opportunity to start over? I thought it was an either / or situation… but that couldn’t have been farther from the truth...
Then, I realized that my experiences with cancer shaped me and became an important part of my past. Since I finished my relapse treatment only three years ago, cancer is not really even part of my past yet and is still very much a part of my present.
Along with that realization came the realization that I was proud of what I had been through and what I have been able to do with my life since then. I came to understand that if I want to tell people about what I’ve been through because it is important to whatever else I am talking about, then I should be proud to do so and have the confidence to share my story.
If the people I was talking to would look at me differently because of it, then I needed to find better friends. So, I started talking to people about it, sharing with them these pieces of me, and I found it was so rewarding in so many ways. First of all, I felt relief simply by saying something about my treatment. Second, I think it allowed people to better understand me, which helps deepen my friendships. The best thing was that the people with whom I have talked to about it, even just in casual conversation, know that about me and don’t make a big deal about it like I thought they would. More importantly, I have actually brought it up in multiple conversations with new people. They responded by telling me about someone they knew who has or had cancer and how inspirational it was to know I was able to get through it and get to where I am today.
Cancer still seems to be so taboo nowadays. People always associate it with death and unimaginable things (which is unfortunately part of it sometimes), so people can react to it in various ways. But, cancer is also soooooooo common in today’s world (1 in 3 people will have cancer at some point in their lives) and I think it is so important for survivors to have confidence in themselves and their stories because it is by talking about what you have been through that helps you feel like you are letting go of this big secret. I have been holding my secret in for a while now, and it feels so good to acknowledge that part of my life and who I am. The best part about talking about your experience with cancer is that you may unknowingly provide a story of hope to someone who is or who knows one of those 1 in 3 people with cancer.