Being Young with Cancer
Cancer is a solo journey.
You have all of these people around you, sending you thoughts, prayers, wishes, and it is amazing. But you are alone. There is no one to hold your hand in the exam room when they tell you your cancer is back. You are alone when they boil your entire life down to a few statistics. So, when you go to your parties, and on your vacations, think about who you are leaving behind, and remember why I am alone.
No one else has to sit in that chair. No one else becomes so weak they can barely move for days. No one can put the hair back on my head. No one can fix it for me.
You go through so much, so quickly. Just since April of last year, I have gone through COVID-19, four surgeries and procedures, college graduation, sixteen days of chemotherapy, and an additional one of immunotherapy, a blood clot in my jugular vein, hundreds and hundreds of hours spent in the hospital, and the hundreds of times they have forced needles into my skin. not even to mention the crippling fatigue, nausea, neuropathy, sores, pains, fevers and chills that I am never more than a week or two away from. The list of conditions I have born is more than twenty items long. I have been told I am cancer free once and have been told twice that I am not. My hair has fallen out, regrown, and fallen out again. It is only January now.
When you’re a young adult with cancer you fall into this grey area, and quickly realize you don’t fit in anywhere. No one else you know has gone through this. Even if they have, there is little chance they did it at the age you are now. No one you know knows what to say to you. You don’t know if you’ll ever be the same person you once were. Odds are you probably won’t be. You don’t even fit in at the cancer center. It is the one place you would think you would be able to blend in or at the very least feel a sense of community. No one there looks like you either. That is probably why they stare. Maybe its because they feel bad for you, but they probably don’t. If you are looking for pity, you will not find it from someone attached to a metal pole pumping drugs into their chest at 11 am on a Monday. You don’t even get a goddamn Make a Wish.
You exist in a parallel universe. Your friends discuss their jobs and school and their plans and where they are traveling and what party they are going to, and you can listen to them, and you can remember what it was like when that’s what you were talking about too. But you don’t talk about those things anymore. You go from spending hundreds of hours at school to hundreds of hours in a hospital before you even realize that you’ve swapped a house of learning for the house of god. There is a thin sheet of glass between you and the rest of the world. If you press too hard it becomes a mirror and you are left staring at your own mortality.1
You are a walking paradox. Your life should just be starting, but it might be ending. You feel like you are still invincible, but the stab wounds in your chest tell you otherwise. Each of the nine new scars I now bear forever confirm this. You watch your body go from something so strong, to something so weak, but your mind remains untouched. You should be crumbling under the weight of it all and you should be questioning everything because of the sheer absurdity of the place that you find yourself, but you don’t, and you won’t. You wonder if it is your fault, and you know it’s not, but you will always wonder. You are smart enough to know what you have and what you have done, but you will never know what you’ve lost.
That all being said, it’s not all bad. Really, it’s not. Was that convincing? You learn so much from cancer. You discover the depth of human kindness. That well goes deeper than I ever imagined. At some point you realize that there is a difference between hoping and believing. You stop hoping. You start believing. You feel deeper. You love more. You have to face things that many people never will, or if they do, it will be much later in life. That is where you draw your power from. When you’re healthy, you have so many wants, so many needs. When you’re like me, you find out you really just have one. I keep looking for it, but I still can’t find a reason to stop smiling.
1. I have adapted this line from a quote popularly attributed to poet Jason Schinder