There’s this feeling I get sometimes when I wake up in the morning. For a moment, I forget about my shaved head, the picc line in my arm, and the illness that has catapulted my life from something seemingly normal into one in which I spend hours staring at the garish tiles of waiting room floors. A life spent inhaling the nauseating smell of saline fluid and pretending to be oblivious to the strained looks of pity masked behind the smiles of strangers. For that one fleeting second, everything is OK.
Then, I feel the prickles on my head and the tubes in my arm and it all comes flooding back. “Oh yeah,” I think to myself, “I forgot this was my life.” Truth is, I can’t say it’s a shock anymore. It’s been three months since my relapse, and it’s safe to say the hysteria has subsided. In fact, besides the weekly hospital visits, unremitting anxiety, and the obscene amount of pills I have to take every day, I feel pretty normal.
I try to hold on to that sense of normality as much as I can, which confuses people sometimes. “Should you be out?” “Should you have a glass of wine?” “Shouldn’t you be resting?” The narrative attached to the words “cancer patient” doesn’t really fit with the image of the girl in the pink wig out dancing with her friends, going to yoga classes, or carrying on with her studies.
Yes, cancer changes you. Irrefutably. You can never be the same after the experience of facing your own mortality (twice), especially in your 20s. While people your age are questioning their careers, relationships, and weekend plans, you’re over here contemplating whether or not you’ll survive.
Inevitably, that is going to change you. You see the world in a new light; you worry about the small things a lot less. However, that doesn’t mean you aren’t still inherently you. That doesn’t mean you want to be treated differently, and it doesn’t mean you want to stop living. For me, the hardest part has been feeling separate from everyone, feeling estranged. Cancer automatically puts you in a box. Suddenly, you’re a part of this new club, an insider, an honorary member. Except it’s a club you never asked to join and nobody wants to be a part of.
I guess there’s a stigma attached to this illness that I struggle to dismiss, the idea that cancer is some kind of weakness. The irony is that I am told regularly how strong I am by friends and strangers alike. So, how do I shake the notion that cancer has somehow made me less, when in fact I know deep down it has made me more? More alive, more compassionate, more adventurous, and more humble. Despite knowing this, I’m often held hostage by the thoughts in my head that taunt me with my misfortune, and suddenly, I’m back to being a victim, a person wronged by life.
I have to learn how to own my story, to change my perspective of cancer from being a burden to being a gift. Something that has awakened me and carved me into a softer, warmer, more grateful human being. I need to own my story, not for anyone else, but for me.
This doesn’t simply mean writing this column or publishing updates on my Instagram. It means accepting my journey on an emotional and psychological level, and on a spiritual level. Accepting fully that this is my path to walk. It doesn’t make me an island and it doesn’t make me weak. It’s easy to feel like cancer steals your identity. But the truth is it only adds to who you are. It gives you a voice, and frankly, it makes you more interesting. People are drawn to those who have walked through the fire, those who have the courage to love life, despite all the pain it has brought.
Now my path is unfolding in a way I never imagined, and although there’s a loss in that, there’s a beauty, too. We are led to incredible and unexpected places when we decide to stop mourning who we thought we would be and embrace our actual story. We can hide away and cower in fear of being seen as the “person with cancer” or we can own it. By owning our story, by not letting this disease steal our spark, our zest for life, we can take our power back. That is how we carry on.
Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.