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When People Say I'm 'Too Young to Have Had Cancer'

I don’t seem to fit a lot of people’s ideas about cancer. I’m neither a child nor properly an adult yet, I still have all my hair and I didn’t have to have chemo or radiation. My cancer journey started and ended with surgery, mainly because I was diagnosed with an incredibly rare and resistant-to-treatment cancer. Outside of that diagnosis, I’m still 22, and that surprises people.

We’re not told much about young people with cancer. The incidence of cancer in children is one in 285, according to the American Cancer Society. Most cases of most cancers are in people who are older; their cells may have had longer to age and mutate. Mine just happened to do so at 22 instead.

I’ve been told that the statistical likelihood of me getting the type of cancer I had, at the age I had, is so astronomically small as to be almost statistically impossible. No amount of overly cautious scanning or awareness could have prepared either me or my doctors for what would appear. To give some idea of how rare my cancer is, the largest study — itself a meta-study including all previous studies — had about 500 cases in it. Not 500 in a year, or a decade; 500 total. A bunch of the studies were just about one person.

Now six months out from my diagnosis I’ve been told numerous times by numerous people that I’m “too young to have had cancer.” It might seem like a good comment to make, but to me, most people are “too young” to have cancer. Maybe if you’ve lived a hundred years and done everything you want to do, but cancer doesn’t differentiate based on time or experience. In my opinion, hidden behind a comment of me being “too young” is a possible assumption that it “should” have happened to someone older.

I will never be glad I had cancer; it’s one of the most difficult and horrifying things that has ever happened to me and will continue to haunt me for the rest of my life. But even though soft tissue sarcomas like my own cancer have an overall survival rate of 45 percent, I’ve learned there’s a better chance — statistically — of overcoming it is as a young adult.

So to the people who said I’m “too young to have had cancer”: there is no age threshold beyond which it is acceptable to have cancer. My young age does not mean my cancer is not as impactful or difficult as that of someone who is older.

To the next person who offers a comment about my age: I know you don’t mean to, but what you say can invalidate my experience. A better thing to do for me would be to sympathize, to express empathy even though what I am experiencing is so entirely foreign. I’m well aware that what I’ve gone through is beyond unusual, but despite that, I still crave normal, empathic human interaction. Please ask how I am, how my scans went, how university is going, even how my dog is; it makes me feel a bit more human in the midst of an inhumane experience.

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Thinkstock image by AntonioGuillem