Looking back on my own two treatments, I am still shocked at how fast it came, how much it took from me, and how fast it was gone. However, in the past few weeks, the suddenness of cancer has taken on a new meaning for me. The brother of a childhood friend was recently diagnosed with AML…. The son of my mom's friend was just diagnosed with ALL …. A friend of mine from my early days of relapse treatment passed away last month from a rare form of cancer. In these past few weeks cancer has come like the tsunami I always knew it to be, but the difference was that this time I was watching the destruction from the sidelines as a bystander, with no power to help those who I knew were being left so helpless.
The feelings I felt in the last two weeks were new for me…. the sadness, the fear….they were different than the sadness and fear I had felt before. This was the raw fear of cancer, not for myself, but for others. I felt an empathy so deep it caused me pain, because I vividly and suddenly remembered the chemo, the shots, the nausea, the misery.
After my relapse treatment ended three years ago, I quickly formed a new life for myself. I easily got caught up in the ups and downs of the daily life of a student. My treatment and the challenges it put me through, stayed with me throughout my last two years in high school following my treatment. Once I began school here at Duke, I found myself able to talk about my experiences in a new way, no longer feeling weighted down by the past, feeling oddly lighter and excited about the many possibilities ahead of me. I felt like I was able to ‘shed’ my cancer ‘skin’.
Then, the last few weeks happened. Shaking me out of my college bubble, I was once again thrust into the harsh world of pediatric cancer.
First, I was confronted with the uncertainty of my own future, not sure of what may happen to my mind and body in the next few decades as a result of all of the treatments I have had. During the recent winter break, my doctor told me I might be beginning to experience cognitive late effects from my treatment, effects that are negatively impacting my ability to process things and solve problems in my math and science classes. I imagined - and became fearful of - even worse outcomes.
Then, I was scared by the news of the two young men just starting to face the journey I had just completed. It scared me because, since being accepted to Duke, I had done my best to take control of my past and beat down any fears or worries I had about my future because of the amazing opportunity I had to spend the next four years in one of the best schools in the country. Being here is such a dream come true that I never let myself think of anything bad ever happening to me again. It scared me because I came face to face with cancer, but from this different angle. I came face to face again with the speed and suddenness with which cancer comes.
Finally, I was told about the death of the young man who I had met in the teen room of Johns Hopkins only five years ago, a teenager full of hope and plans for the future. Finally, I came face to face with the passively aggressive way cancer can destroy the idea of hope.
I spent a lot of time in the last few weeks contemplating all of this news, all of these feelings. I questioned how it would be possible for these kids, and even myself, to overcome these challenges. How would all of us get past the scary things we face?
After thinking, I came to several conclusions.
First of all, a big mistake I made during my treatment, and a mistake I continue to make, is trying to keep it all together and keep it all to myself for the sake of those around me. In my effort to stay positive, I tried to ignore any bad feelings or experiences. I tried to ignore the fact that sometimes, I needed help. However, I think I am only now beginning to understand that it is necessary for my own sanity to acknowledge when I am struggling. Even in my struggle with classes this semester, I am so much more relieved now that I have gotten help and support from the academic resource center at my school.
Second of all, I understand now how important it is to share my worries and cares with friends and family and surround myself with people who make me smile. I have tried to do this over the last few weeks and I found that that combination was very successful and allowed hope and peace to be restored. After talking to my parents on the phone, after telling my friends about all that had happened and spending a night laughing and watching movies with them in one of the lounge rooms of their dorm, I smiled and was at peace. All was well again.
So, what I want to emphasize is that no matter how bad things can be, it is the support you get from those around you that can make or break your ability to hold your head high. More importantly, it is your own awareness of your limits and recognition of when you need help that can make all the difference in your ability to stay positive. Therefore, surround yourself with people who care about you and make you smile. Furthermore, get help from that support system when you need it. No one will think you any less strong or brave for reaching out for help. No matter how fast or furiously any challenge, like cancer, comes at you, it is so important to anchor yourself to your support system and recognize if you need help. If you are able to do so, I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes easier to stay positive and get through your challenges!!