When I was fifteen years old, I thought I would be going to school and spending my time hanging out with friends. I never thought I would be spending hours in the hospital while chemotherapy dripped through my veins.
When I learned I had cancer, I was not shocked. I did not have a full blown panic attack and collapse on the ground, sobbing. I knew I was sick. I knew there was a reason for my lips turning blue whenever I physically exerted myself and for my consistent morning cough.
I was in Japanese class when I got called to the office. My dad met me there, took me to his car, and told me the chest x-ray and CT scan I had taken the other day showed lymphoma. I am a naturally calm person, so my first reaction was, “Yeah, whatever. Let’s go to the hospital and get it sorted out”. I had done a quick search of my disease online before leaving home and saw an 80% survival rate. That is all I needed to see.
I first broke down when the outpatient doctor at the hospital checked me out. As he felt up my neck, he discovered a big lump that I knew had been there. He said, “Yeah, this is most likely Hodgkin’s. How long have you had this lump?” I do not remember what I said, but I remember feeling upset that I knew I had this lump for so long but never told anyone. It never crossed my mind to be anything significant. I started crying hard. Guilt surrounded me for a while because I thought things would be different if I had gotten my lump checked out sooner. Mainly, I was annoyed at myself.
Chemotherapy was just draining. The beds in the outpatient clinic filled up quickly, so my mom and I would leave early in the morning so I didn’t have to sit with my IV’s in the waiting room. I loved the bed in the corner with two big windows, because I could open both blinds all the way and let the light poor in on me and all the machines I was hooked up to. In between all the chemotherapy I was getting, I would watch music videos on my computer or watch the construction workers build the new section of the hospital. I always wondered if they were building the new wing for me.
My lowest point during treatment was radiation therapy. My lymphoma was widespread, so the doctors split up my radiation over a span of a little over a month. The first half I had treatment to my chest and neck, and the second half I had treatment to my abdominal area.
Radiation to my stomach was terrible. Every night before bed I knew I would wake up in the morning feeling nauseous. My appointments were usually at 10am, so my mom or dad would drive me there and I would sit in the waiting room. Hundreds of pictures of former patients covered the walls, and I couldn’t help but wonder if these kids were still alive.
My main goal was to figure out how not to get sick. Generally, 15 minutes after being zapped is when I would feel a nauseous haze come over me. Usually I made it home, but one time I didn’t make it out of the hospital before throwing up in the hallway. After I got home after a tumultuous freeway ride, I would sit in my lawn chair next to my pool and turn on some blues music. I would just lie there and relax, trying to focus on remaining calm so I would not get sick.
What helped most during this time was a nurse I had. More so than anything, she was the first nurse that seemed to generally care about me as a person – not just as a patient. She wasn’t there to just weigh me and check my blood – she was there to talk to me. That is why I remember her so fondly.
When I was done with treatment, I did not call the clowns and jugglers to celebrate. Of course, I was intensely relieved to be healthy, but I just didn’t feel like congratulating myself. I had missed a whole year of school, lost touch with my friends, and hadn’t been playing basketball or baseball, which were parts of my life I loved. I didn’t see much to be happy about.
Instead of celebrating the past, I decided to focus on making my future as happy as possible, so I would not need celebrations to cheer me up. Mentally, it took me a while to feel normal. I was nervous for a long time about my disease coming back, but after talking it over with a psychologist and exploring my thoughts I started to feel at ease. Nowadays, I feel calm all the time. I know a tough homework assignment is nothing compared to trying to make it to the parking lot after radiation therapy without throwing up.
What bothers me are my memories. I can’t seem to remember events in my life very vividly before I had cancer, but I can remember lots of situations in the hospital and at home while sick very clearly. I also met a few people through my cancer experience who have since passed away, and thinking about them is one thing that gets me really upset. I don’t think it is possible to summarize in words I how feel about them being gone.
I started going back to school at the beginning of my junior year, although it took me a while to get back in the groove as I still had immense fatigue and trouble focusing. I felt a bit left out because I only went to four classes a day. I didn’t like being limited, but I knew I was still recovering. In my senior year, I was happy to take a full coarse load. I hunkered down and started seeing fun in my studies, and it paid off. Right now, I’m a freshman at New York University, and I’m happy to be a survivor of cancer. To me, surviving is not about the past – it’s about making my current life as fun and happy as possible. I already spent months and months in the lowest points of my life, and nothing I face today is as difficult as having cancer. I realize I survived a terrible illness that not everyone survives, but I think the best way to deal with that fact is to make my life happy and the people surrounding me happy.