Dear Young[er] Sam,
I want you to remember that you’re a heartfelt and passionate woman. When things get hard, taking a deep breath really does help. Sometimes you just need five minutes away from the situation to get a handle on it. Also, remember to grieve.
You’re taking on a lot, way more than you feel is fair, in order to be successful. You don’t feel like grieving is an option because there is too much work to be done. Before you know it, you’ll enter your 30s. You always planned to have things more together by 30. Maybe not completely together, but at least a little more figured out. You’re about to be blindsided.
When you’re 29, your stepdad, who’s typically the person to make difficult situations better, dies unexpectedly. You’ll be strong for your mom and then you’ll go back to work and life as if nothing happened. Other than a moment of sadness at the memorial, you won’t cry or grieve his death.
Less than a year later you’ll go to the dermatologist about some itching concerns and have a mole removed. Before you know it, you’re having multiple surgeries and entering treatment for melanoma during a worldwide pandemic. No one can accompany you to your appointments. Everyone is afraid they’ll make you sick by visiting, so they don’t. You’ll be alone during the early stages of this fight. None of those things will bother you, though, because you have your success to worry about. There is no time to grieve a cancer diagnosis. Treat it and move on.
Treating it and moving on seems simple. It’s skin cancer after all. A little surgery and it’s gone, right? Only, this wasn’t “a little” skin cancer. Your skin cancer metastasized throughout your lymphatic system. Surgery alone won’t cure this. Cancer muggles like to say that if you don’t undergo chemo, then you’re lucky. You’ll believe them. There’s nothing lucky about “breakthrough” immunotherapy drugs being pumped into you every other week. There’s nothing lucky about sitting in an infusion room without a support system with other patients who appear on the brink of death and say things like “but you’re so young”. Again, there is no time to feel sorry for yourself. You’ll take your poison and move on.
Before you know it, you’ll be sitting on the floor of a cold shower crying and won’t be able to tell your husband what’s wrong. This is the start of a marriage filled with tension and the inability to understand one another. They say a cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment can kill a marriage. They’re not wrong.
You’ll want your stepdad at this moment more than you ever have in your entire life. He isn’t there, though. You’ll begin to grieve his death and your cancer diagnosis simultaneously. Panic will set in. Those are big emotions that you have no experience handling because you never took the time to address your emotions before now.
“This can’t be right,” you’ll think. “I overcame so many obstacles to get to this point in my life; I can’t lose my dad and get cancer within a year.”
It’s all happening. It’s real. However, it’s not the end of the world. You must fight hard. It won’t be fun or easy, but new doors will open. You’ll find yourself in a way you never knew possible. You’ll be introduced to some of the most important people in your life who make you laugh like you didn’t know possible, and they’ll give the best hugs ever. Hugs that’ll make you forget all the bad stuff. With time, you’ll learn crying can be helpful and necessary. It’s when you give up and become numb to the fact that you have this illness that it’s time to worry. Don’t become numb and don’t surrender to cancer. Don’t let cancer win.
During this journey, you’ll realize that just because treatment ends doesn’t mean cancer ends. You’ll receive more diagnoses along the way that make you at high risk for recurrence. Your body changes and likely will never go back to pre-cancer times. Your eating disorder mentality will creep back into your life. Once you’re a cancer patient, you’re a cancer patient for life. Bloodwork, scans, long-term possible side-effects of a breakthrough treatment no one knew to tell you about yet. The thoughts of “when is this going to come back as Stage IV”? Lots of heavy feelings. None of it goes away.
It’s okay to be mad. This wasn’t the life you planned. As crazy as it sounds, it’s the life you needed. This incredibly difficult experience makes you a stronger person. That doesn’t mean any of this is fair or you deserved it, but these are the cards you were dealt, and you use them to make yourself a little better every day. You’ll get into therapy and stay this time. You’ll learn how to cope with trauma in a healthy way. You’ll take control of both your personal and professional life. You will no longer stand by and let the circumstances of life control you.
Cry today. Be mad at cancer. Be mad that you lost your dad. Just be mad. Don’t bottle up your emotions, because they’re real and deserve space. Let people in who want to help. Be vulnerable. Don’t wait for your world to come crashing down to learn that lesson. Don’t allow cancer to define you. Take in the bad, but also take in the good. Take in the baby giggles from your sweet nephews and experience the happiness of your rescue pups. Feel the breeze on your skin when you run. Choose to believe that life, in general, is good, and good always wins in the end. Sometimes all of this will be hard to see, but choose to believe regardless. The power of thought and belief is incredible.
Trust me, you’ll not only get through this, but you’ll come out on top.
me, Sam, age 32
stage III Melanoma survivor