My name is Keaton Williams and I am a cancer survivor.
I was 19 years old, newly out of high school and thriving through college life. I was working at Disneyland, going out with friends, dating; everything was perfect. I was as happy as I thought I could be. Life seemed almost perfect. I had a plan. I had a goal. I had a roadmap. Everything was set in stone…until it wasn’t.
I noticed over time that my nose seemed to be extremely stuffy and would drain frequently. It came to a point where the drainage was inhibiting my day to day life and even became so bad that I couldn’t breathe out of my right nostril. I ended up going to my primary care physician, who told me it was a sinus infection. I was given antibiotics and sent on my way. This would be a repeated process for the next five months as we would try to fix the “sinus infection.” One day, I was in class and leaned over, resting my head on my hand. I felt a lump on my neck. I showed my mom when I got home and she just thought the sinus infection was getting worse, as lymph nodes become swollen through sinus infections and that is what the lump looked like. She thought it was similar to the sinus infection my sister had, who is also a cancer survivor. My sister needed sinus surgery to correct the infection, so we thought it was best for me to see an ENT (Ear Nose Throat Specialist) in the case that I was experiencing the same issue. Once I was seen by the ENT, he instantly wanted biopsies and studies done on me, which was a little alarming. We waited two long weeks to receive the results, and we were told it was Rhabdomyosarcoma, a muscle cancer in the sinus duct. I was told I have to start treatment within 2 weeks. Within 2 weeks, I would have to stop going to school, leave my job, and enter a life changing treatment. I would endure 10 months of aggressive chemotherapy, 5.5 weeks of intense radiation, and 2 months of recovery.
Being a young adult affected by cancer is a uniquely challenging. At this age, young adults are still discovering themselves, establishing relationships, and figuring out what path they want to take in life. When cancer becomes their life, they have to think intensely about their future: if they wish to have kids then they will have to freeze their sperm or eggs, all medical decisions are legally their responsibility, coping through additional stressors such as academics, as well as how to maintain a healthy lifestyle on top of treatment. There is an immense lack of resources and support in regards to young adults who are faced with cancer.
Through my experience, I learned many valuable life lessons that still remain true today. I learned that with any given situation, you need a sense of community in order to be able to maintain healthy coping mechanisms. Every community looks different for every person. My community was my family, friends, loved ones, and other patients who are affected by cancer. When I was emotionally and physically struggling, it was my family who truly picked me up and kept me going. When I needed to vent or receive unbiased advice, I could always rely on those patients whom I had become close with. Once you have experienced cancer and meet another person who is, or was, affected by cancer, there is an instant bond that is created. There is an overwhelming sensation of empathy and relatability that is shared. When the cancer is gone, a magic wand isn’t waved and all of your problems are gone. On the contrary; life after cancer is still incredibly difficult. Coping with the anxiety and PTSD is a daily struggle, which reinforces the need for community and support.
Even though cancer was one of the worst things to have ever happened to me, it also was one of the best. I truly discovered myself, my purpose, and my values throughout my treatment. I am eternally grateful for my health, as well as the health of my family and friends. It is definitely something we take for granted far too often. Strangely enough now, there is no other place that I feel a stronger sense of purpose than when I am speaking with and helping those affected by cancer. This inspired me to join multiple organizations, such as Teen Cancer America and the UCLA Daltrey Townshend Teen and Young Adult Cancer Program, where we advocate for Teens and Young Adults who are dealing with and/or affected by cancer in any capacity. Following this path has inspired me to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in hopes to work in a children’s oncology unit one day. I am currently pursuing my Masters of Social Work at San Diego State University to make this dream a reality. I firmly believe that I will be able to serve these children and their families to the best of my ability with my first-hand experience, allowing me to express true empathy to my patients.
I am a firm believer in that everything happens for a reason, at least, I have to be. Without this mindset, I would not be able to keep pushing on like I do. There are things that have happened to me, to my friends, and to my loved ones that I cannot quite make sense of. However, I have placed my faith and trust in a bigger purpose. When one survives such a traumatic, life-changing event, it seems as if this is the only mindset that will carry you through. You choose hope. You hope and trust that everything will be okay. You hope and trust that everything will work out as it is meant to be. You hope and trust every single day, over and over again, even if it seems impossible at times. And THAT in itself is surviving cancer.
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://www.elephantsandtea.com/contact/submissions/.