I was diagnosed with cancer on November 21st, 2014. I was 21 years old.
I really didn’t have any symptoms before my diagnosis, just a series of random events that lead me to the ER one night for a pulled muscle in my chest. Turns out, after some x-rays and blood work, I was fine, or so I thought. A few days later I got a call for an emergency CT scan. I had the scan and was given a booklet of folded white paper held together by a single staple. The nurse who handed me the paper told me to bring it to my doctor.
Well, of course, I fucking opened it as soon as I felt the room. I don’t remember exactly what it said, but as I skimmed the typed text, a few words stuck out to me: suspected lymphoma, masses, 8cm in the chest cavity.
In the following weeks, I received further testing; a bone marrow biopsy, CT and PET scans, and hundreds of tubes of blood work. In November I had my diagnosis. Stage 3 type A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma with tumor all clustered along my collar bone and by my spleen. I don’t really remember exactly what went through my head that day of my original diagnosis, but I think it was something along the lines of, “okay I have cancer, what’s next because I have an exam in a few weeks.”
I underwent a year of chemo and radiation and somehow managed to stay in school and work at my part-time job – this was my escape from cancer, somewhere I could be without thinking about how sick I was. And also somewhere I could be around normal people. I was studying fine art and writing at the University of Toronto and poured all of my emotions into my practice and into my writing.
I finished my chemotherapy and radiation treatment in June of 2015. In September, I went back for a follow-up and found out that my cancer was back and I had relapsed. My relapsed diagnosis was grey zone lymphoma, which is a rare mutated blood cancer. My new tumors were floating between my heart and lungs. I went through another year of chemo, radiation and a stem cell transplant using my own stem cells.
I remember what cancer felt like, but not how cancer felt like. From the first day back in 2014, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t allow myself to feel anything; I acted like I was in control around my friends and would always downplay the severity of my illness. Around my family, I put on a hard exterior and didn’t want them to talk about my cancer. I never wanted to talk about my cancer. I never wanted to admit that I even had cancer, or when I needed help, and in doing so I felt alone and isolated all the time. I put up walls, walls that kept my friends from helping me, and I think, more importantly, walls that pushed away my emotions, and any feelings that I had.
After my second year of treatment, I was not a nice person to be around. I was a major fucking bitch. I was angry all the time, I was edgy, moody and mean to everyone around me, including the people who loved me the most. I created this energy of hate and anger and carried it around with me for years.
Looking back, I can say that my family and I dealt with the practicality of cancer: appointments, food, nutrition, alternative medicine, exercise, what have you. But we never really talked. We never talked about how we felt like a family, how I felt having cancer or how my parents felt about my diagnosis. We closed ourselves off and I was the ring leader because I couldn’t deal with being sick while doing the treatments at the same time. I never wanted support; I was too proud to ask for help and that really changed our relationship in a negative way.
At the time, I was the only 21-year-old I knew who had cancer, and even though I had a support system at home I still felt like no one really got it. I sank into a deep depression of self-hate and worthlessness, my anxiety spiking and spiraling. I remember covering all the mirrors in my room because I couldn’t stand to see myself and how I changed physically and mentally. I knew I was awful and I couldn’t face myself or change myself. I was in denial about my cancer and about how it was making me act and feel.
In my survivorship, I realized that by not addressing my emotions and talking/dealing with my feelings, I was actually making myself sicker. This sickness started to spread into different parts of my life and my relationships with my parents and close friends. Hate, anger, pain, sadness, and a loss of identity were all I felt all the time.
To this day I’m still trying to grasp and understand my emotions and feelings, trying to remember how I felt or wanted to feel but with no context anymore like there is this big two-year black hole in my memory. I don’t have the pieces to put it back together anymore and I grieve for my cancer self, wishing I had embraced my emotions at the moment and was honest. This is still something that really upsets me.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I decided to get help. I remember sitting with my mom watching TV and telling her that I think I had PTSD, major anxiety, and depression. I wanted to start to heal. My first step was, as funny as it sounds, admitting that I needed help. I finally was acknowledging that I needed to forgive myself before I could move forward.
After getting in touch with a Psychologist through Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, I started going to therapy. I slowly began to open up about how I felt, about my spiraling anxiety and my dips of depression. I talked about my relationships with friends, family, and my boyfriend at the time. Talking to someone really helped me unload some issues I didn’t know I was still gripping so hard onto. Over the next two years, I continued going to therapy and I also started being more open with the people in my life; telling them how I was feeling and finally talking about cancer.
Eventually, I decided to go on mediation because I just felt like I wasn’t improving to the point where my quality of life was stable…I just wanted to be happy again, and finally, I can truly say that I am. Being on medication for your mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. Sometimes we need help because our body balance is just off tilt enough to cause us daily pain and suffering. I didn’t want to suffer anymore. Being brave is about being honest, and for me meant that I needed a little extra help to balance my body and take that edge off. After 5 years of being stuck in a void of darkness and pain, I can finally say that I have found my happiness and will to live again.
In 2017 I discovered Young Adult Cancer Canada (YACC). I went to a young adult cancer retreat in British Columbia and met a group of strangers who helped me start my life again with their honesty, vulnerability, and their willingness to share the deepest moments of their lives. Connecting with these people was really the start of my new life.
For me, the most important thing I learned at the retreat was, “it’s okay to not be okay” and that addressing your emotions when you have them is the best way to acknowledge and work through them. Cancer fucking sucks. You do not have to be brave all the time or be positive and hide how you really feel. To me, being brave isn’t about positivity. Sometimes being brave means allowing yourself to feel angry or scared or sad, and saying, “Hey I’m not okay right now, I need to talk about it”. That is okay and you should find strength in being about to have that honest conversation with yourself.
In 2018 I created a Blog and YouTube channel – called This Infernal Racket: My Life, After Cancer – where I now discuss my life during and more importantly my life after cancer. By talking and advocating about my cancer experience, I am healing myself but also helping provide information to other cancer thrivers on things that I couldn’t find when I was sick. I found peace in sharing my story and emotions with this new young adult cancer community that I was now a part of.
Along the way, I have found that others have reached out to me and made connections and told me that I helped them get through a day or treatment, or moment – and that in itself is so rewarding. One morning as I was getting ready for work, I got a message through my Instagram from a man in California who was just about to undergo his own stem cell transplant. He told me that after reading my latest blog post and exploring my social platforms that he felt comforted by the fact that there was life after this disease, “I didn’t know there could be light at the end of all this but your stories have shown me there is, and I can’t wait for that”.
In my life after cancer, I have accomplished a lot more than I thought I ever would. I really didn’t think I could be happy again, but here I am really living a mindful and happy life.
I’ve traveled to many countries, graduated from university, and completed a master’s degree. I’ve built my own business, become a peer supporter within the cancer community, participated in public speaking events such as STARS in conjunction with the Annie Parker Foundation, and even gotten into heavy lifting which was never something I thought I could do.
This all sounds cool but really but I’m still learning how to heal. Every day I try and practice being mindful of myself which could include things like self-awareness, honesty and sometimes being selfish and saying no to others. I want to show people that there is life after this disease, and it’s worth living for and that you are worth living for.
All of the posts written for Elephants and Tea are contributed by patients, survivors, caregivers and loved ones dealing with cancer. If you have a story or experience you would like to share with the cancer community we would love to hear from you! Please submit your idea at https://elephantsandtea.cdn-pi.com/contact/submissions/.