A colon cancer survivor reflects on receiving her first diagnosis as a high school student, and offers current students whose academic careers have been altered by COVID-19 some advice on how they'll get through the missed experiences.
I can't help but draw uncanny parallels between what the class of 2020 and 2021 is going through and what I faced approximately 20 years ago when I was in high school. In the second semester of my junior year, I abruptly could no longer go to school. A global pandemic wasn't the cause of my extended absence, but rather a stage 3 colon cancer diagnosis.
Although I was the only one at the time who couldn't be at school anymore (my classmates were still there), I imagine my feelings of loss are similar to what the recent graduates and newly-minted seniors are feeling. Having your whole world torn away without any notice is hard for anyone, especially teens. The uncertainty of if, and when, you'll get your life back is unsettling.
Before my diagnosis, I had never thought about the frailty of human beings and topics like death and dying. This is a privilege afforded to the young and healthy. Even after my diagnosis, I couldn't quite grasp that my physical life was at risk; I was more concerned about my social life. All I wanted was to feel like a normal teenager — to hang out with my friends, date my boyfriend, listen to music, go to the movies, eat at restaurants, attend youth group, travel for my mission trip and visit colleges. As these things were taken away, in many ways, it was tougher than the cancer itself.
Over the years, I've answered, "What's the hardest part about having cancer as a teenager?" in the same way: feeling forgotten. This isn't uniquely a teenage experience, many cancer survivors feel abandoned when they get diagnosed and their support systems crumble. I faced cancer before smartphones and social media, and way before fear of missing out (FOMO) was a popular acronym, but when I did find out my friends got together without me, it brought deep pain. When I see today's teenagers struggling with COVID-19's social distancing and quarantines, dealing with similar types of loss when it comes to school and friends, I can empathize. I don't blame them for trying to find ways around getting together. I commend parents and leaders learning about teens' mental, emotional and spiritual needs. Our teens deserve a lot of grace right now. What they're uniquely going through isn't easy.
I'm thankful to be alive in 2020 because, despite this challenging year, I'm here to see it. I'm blessed to have physically survived colon cancer (two times now) and I'm currently in remission. I didn't only physically survive cancer though, I socially survived it as well. In fact, I'm still friends with many people from high school who didn't forget me — I talk about many of them in my memoir, Blush. Many opportunities I missed out on back then, when it felt like the end of the world, have come around again. My life continues to bring full-circle moments.
I wouldn't wish colon cancer, or a global pandemic, on anyone who is in high school, but I do want to share encouragement as I reflect over what the past 20 years have taught me. I want teens to know things will get better. The challenges of this year aren't defining you, but rather refining you, and you'll apply these lessons for the rest of your life. The friends who stick with you during COVID-19 may very well become some of your closest, life-long friends. The moments you're missing out on will, in some way, make their way back to you. One day, you'll find yourself telling others facing awful circumstances that they too can survive ... just like you did.