I work with a beautiful and smart young woman who is working her way through college like most people her age. But one thing, in particular, that sets her apart from other 20-something-year-olds is that she's battling cancer for the second time. I recently sat down with her to talk about her journey: diagnosis, relapse and how she has coped.
Tell me about the day you found out you had cancer.
I had known something was wrong, but hoped for the best. Hearing that I had cancer was surreal. I blocked everything out and I started to think about what was going to happen. I remember my first thought being that no matter what happened, I couldn’t leave my grandparents.
Can you share what kind of cancer you have and your treatment regimens?
I had non-Hodgkin lymphoma and did oral chemotherapy with Leukeran (chlorambucil) for six months. It was awful. I was nauseous all the time and couldn’t really eat. I fighting non-Hodgkin lymphoma again and am back on oral chemotherapy.
What would you tell someone who is newly diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma before they begin treatment?
I would tell them to ride it out. Its sucks, but eat when you don’t want to eat. Know that it is OK to not be OK.
Did you ever question why you were diagnosed with cancer?
I question that everyday. When I was diagnosed, I definitely went through the stages of grief. I thought that I was going to die. I even wrote a will at one point. But accepting the fact that there isn’t always an answer as to "why" is something that I’ve had to reason with.
Did you share your diagnosis and, if so, how did you come to that decision?
It took months to share with a lot of people. My grandparents obviously knew, as did my boyfriend. I told my mom after I did my first round of treatment. My brother is in the military and was away, so I waited to tell him until he came home. Telling him that I had cancer this last time was hardest because he is gone again. I told him over Skype.
Was there ever a point during cancer that you didn’t want to keep going?
Not at first, but, more recently, with my second diagnosis there have been times. This treatment has been really hard physically and emotionally. I am trying to stay positive and to be active. I am trying to not let it take over my mind so much.
Share how you felt when you were told you were in remission.
I thought that it was about time when they told me. I was relieved. To hear that I had cancer again shattered my world. It’s hard because I am not sure if I hear it again that I will be able to believe it because I’ve heard it before. Having been told I have cancer twice, I am honestly not really optimistic. I worry about it coming back again even if I do gain remission again.
What are the harder conversations that you’ve had to have with your care team?
I am the kind of person who wants to know everything upfront, even if it sucks. But hearing that I am not doing enough to take care of myself is hard. I need to take care of my grandparents, I'm in school and I can’t afford to not work through cancer, so I can’t really do differently.
What is something you wish people better understood about going through cancer?
I wish they understood that it’s a mind game. One day you are OK and the next day you can’t even get out of bed. Cancer has taken a toll on me emotionally and there are some days that I wonder if it’s even worth it. Some days I want to kick ass, and others I am just ready to give up.
Aside from having cancer itself, what is something you would change about this journey?
Through cancer I have learned that Pooh Bear was right, I am stronger than I thought I was. That being said, I think I would let more people in. It's just hard to do.
Do you think being so young with cancer gives you a better perspective or advantage compared with someone younger or older?
Personally, cancer has made me scared to make long-term commitments. I am a happy and active person, but cancer makes me angry. I’m angry that I can’t do a lot of stuff I would normally do. I was training for body competitions and now I can’t even eat enough to go through training. But this disease affects everyone differently so not necessarily.
As far as advice for fellow patients, survivors and caregivers, she says "listen, eat and live."