What It's Like to Receive a Cancer Diagnosis at 24
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Summer is my favorite season because I get to spend two months in my happy place: sleepaway camp. This summer was not unlike the previous, but it was overshadowed by evenings of intense headaches and excessive tiredness. I did not think much of it until a week a half after moving to my new apartment in Boston. I really was feeling off and it was not just because my body needed some extra compassion after two months of non-stop work and fun. When I started developing some additional symptoms, my primary care doctor called me at 10 pm and said it was time to go to the emergency room.
My most recent ER visits were all when I was in crisis and required observation and transfer to a psychiatric ward, so this was different. I did not know what to expect or if maybe I was overreacting by telling my doctor everything that felt off. I can still vividly see myself on a stretcher in the hallway of the ER, trying to get even the slightest amount of sleep between doctors, x-rays and CT’s. It was not until the next morning that I finally got some privacy in a room. A nurse practitioner from neurosurgery showed me a picture of my brain and said they saw a lesion on the scans.
I was in shock. I was thrown off guard and did not know what to say or ask or do. How many times had my generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) told me that I had a brain tumor or some other obscure illness? I just always know that those are irrational thoughts I can challenge or try to dismiss. And yet, the day I am told that there was a tumor on my brain I was not at all prepared to hear the news and everything that followed.
They did not know what it was, if it was cancer, if it was benign or malignant. But they did know that to learn more and to stop my symptoms, they had to take it out. Less than two days after going to the ER, I was having brain surgery. There were no discussions of plans beyond the surgery or time to process the situation; the doctors said I needed something, and we let them do it.
After surgery, recovery was smooth for me physically, but my emotional recovery over the next few weeks and months was tumultuous. The hardest part was waiting. I was discharged from the hospital with follow up from the surgeon and an appointment with a neuro-oncologist, but no diagnosis and no plan. Even meeting with the oncologist there was still no information on the pathology, or the make-up of the tumor, so there was still no way of deciding what treatments were needed.
One afternoon when I was back home and both my parents had returned home after multiple trips to Boston, I got a call from my surgeon. This was the most abrupt and life-changing call I’d ever had. The pathology came back, and the tumor was a rare, aggressive cancer called angiosarcoma, and I would hear from the cancer center regarding appointments.
I had not ever really thought of how I would like to receive such heavy news about my health, but I’ve always imagined from TV and movies that a person would be sitting in an office with family, the doctor sitting behind a desk. It is structured and there is sympathy in their voice. They give you a list of treatment options and support resources. Let me tell you, I never expected to get a life-altering diagnosis alone, on the phone with little regard for my emotional response to such heavy news. How do I move forward from that? Do I call my parents and tell them, do I call my friends for support, do I google my diagnosis and see the grim prognosis, do I cry, do I scream or do I just sit with this news and do nothing?
I have learned from experience that we can make all the plans we want, but life will take us where it decides to go. I had to take time off of college to focus on my mental health, which delayed my graduation. Then I did not end up teaching right out of college, yet I was still on a path moving forward, even if it was not the one I had envisioned. To be totally honest, cancer was not something that was ever on my mind besides when my aunt passed away from cancer when I was in middle school. I have been fighting an uphill battle with my mental illnesses the last few years, and I always foresee them to be a challenge even when I am on a path of recovery. But this was the year I was going to take back my life and start moving forward on a new path, wherever that might take me. Over the summer I turned 24 and just a week before my surgery I got a job as an assistant teacher at a special education school. I was making strides towards my long-awaited goal of being a teacher, yet after one day of orientation my entire world changed.
Through my experiences over the past seven months of my cancer journey, I have noticed there are many resources geared towards pediatrics or geriatrics. There is this group of young adults, on the cusp of independence, breaking into the real world and life after school, who has unique challenges when given a cancer diagnosis. I moved to Boston just a year before this happened and was still learning what it meant to be an independent adult living eight hours away from my parents and where I grew up. Suddenly, I felt that was taken away from me because my parents would alternate coming up to Boston to stay with me in my apartment that I shared with two roommates I met merely two weeks earlier.
Every time I go to the hospital, whether it is for chemotherapy treatments or when I have needed inpatient care, I am reminded of how I do not fit in with the patients around me. I am not looking for a picture perfect cancer story like we often see on TV shows where patients are playing games and know each other. But it begs the question, does my oncologist and my team understand that I still have my whole life in front of me? I have not seen everything I want to see in the world, and I have not accomplished all that I wish to accomplish. I believe these are very important factors when we have to plan my treatment. How can I continue to grow as an adult and have meaningful life experiences while simultaneously fighting the caner and hopefully reaching a point where I can say I am in remission?
The past seven months have been filled with aggressive and frequent chemotherapy treatments and radiation treatments for multiple body parts. I unfortunately was not able to keep my job and have been trying to volunteer at some local non-profit organizations when I am feeling well enough. I have really struggled seeing my friends and peers continue to progress in their careers and schooling, while I have felt stagnant at 24.
I am seeing some light at the end of a long tunnel and will be having at least two months off of chemotherapy, which is allowing me to begin to think of what I might want to try to do for the next school year. Maybe I can reapply for teaching and assistant teaching positions and try to dip my toe in the water of “normalcy.” It is going to continue to be a long road, but all I can control is how I handle the situation. And right now I am choosing to have hope for a future beyond cancer.
Photo by Olly Joy on Unsplash