One year ago today, I received my cancer diagnosis. One year ago today, this train changed its course forever. I heard the words too many people hear. In that instant, at 20 years old, I was a young girl just trying to maneuver college, and in that instant, I also became a #FutureCancerSurvivor. I immediately joined a club no one ever thinks they will be part of.
In that instant, and in the weeks and months that followed, I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I just knew it would feel like a long road ahead. I filed an incomplete for my summer classes and cancelled the rest I was registered for in the fall. For the first few weeks, it was as if it didn’t really sink in. I felt like I was in “production” mode, like I was preparing to go to the newsroom on campus and write someone else’s story.
I had diagnostic surgery and a helluva recovery in July.
I had surgery to implant a port in my chest for chemo in August.
I began chemo shortly after.
I lost my hair in September, the day before my 21st birthday.
And all this time I refused to identify as a cancer patient.
In October, I became weak. The daily visits to the hospital and infusion center for chemo treatments had replaced the part of my mind responsible for hunger and appetite stimulation. I lost 15% of my body weight and never spoke because I was too nauseas, leaving nothing but internal dialogue to turn into depression the four hours I was awake each day. But no one would have known. I had a life to live. I wanted to continue as a “healthy” young adult.
My family kept me going.
But the side effects multiplied. Moody. Nauseas. Horrible appetite. Little verbal communication (we developed our own sign language). Cold, then hot. Neuropathy. Off balance. Weak. Ringing in the ears. No taste buds. Hypersensitivity to smell. Tired.
In November, I celebrated the end of chemotherapy. I still had various appointments to check on the aftereffects of chemo, most of which included trips to the pulmonologist for my least favorite activity- lung function tests.
More side effects appeared without an invitation. Nerve damage. Dry skin. Skin discolorations.
And then I received a phone call mid-November, 2 days after my CT scan, with the words “no evidence of disease” (commonly referred to as NED, and some of the most glorious letters a cancer-goer could hear).
I was fortunate enough to gain my sense of taste back, slowly eat more meals, and gain some healthy weight again. My boyfriend and I drove to Kentucky in the following weeks and met his parents halfway for a cozy and quick vacation weekend in the mountains. I was thankful to be in a car headed somewhere different than the hospital.
I was also fortunate enough to taste every last bite on Thanksgiving, and even fly up to Wisconsin after Christmas to say hello to family and friends. Before then, my immediate family and I spent Christmas in Georgia together for the first time in our new home since moving here five years ago. It was a mixture of alternating happy and sad feelings to be so far away from traditions you’ve known since the day we arrived on Earth.
Since my return to the South after the new year, I have reenrolled in my college classes, picked up two jobs, started writing for the university newspaper (and even hired later as the new managing editor), spent spring break in beautiful Savannah, finished the semester with a 4.0, and took on a summer internship along with my summer classes. Chris and I found some time to drive up to Wisconsin again this summer to pick up his new car and celebrate his birthday while visiting our hometown.
All of this brings me to today, my cancerversary. Since I can’t change anything about the past year, I am deciding to be proactive about the years ahead for both myself and the people I encounter each day. I will not ignore the day that changed my life forever. I will continue to think about the good that has come from my cancer. I appreciate every person in my life and the energy they radiate. I appreciate each day in a way I never could have imagined before. I now know what it means to be thankful for each day I’m given, and just how precious time really is. I don't think that's truly understandable unless you are faced with death.
In August, I will have my next quarterly check-up with my oncologist, as well as the results of my genetic testing done this summer.
I still worry the cancer will come back. With such a rare cancer, consisting of less than 0.05% of all ovarian cancers, there isn’t enough available research and information out there to be sure it’s gone for good (not to mention the secondary cancers tied to young adult survivors from chemo). I think that’s part of my future, but that won’t stop me from anything. Even so, I will always have a little bit of cancer fear that I didn’t have before this day last year- Fear that I wish I never had to feel.
Nonetheless, I stand here a year later, humbled by the support I have received and the love I have felt from both near and far. I am 100% a different woman than I was a year ago. Empathetic. Determined. Passionate. I am extremely grateful to have a voice by being able to write these blog posts, and even to share my story to the girl sitting next to me in class.
I mean it from the bottom of my heart when I say I want to help other women (& men!) realize that not going to the doctor to get screened isn’t going to prevent you from getting cancer. No matter your opinion or position on health care, be grateful and act upon the fact that you have the responsibility to go to a professional and take care of your health – something not everyone gets to have. I encourage everyone I know and meet to get their annual screening and checkup, even if it is with a natural/holistic doctor or whatever you believe in. Listening to my body saved my life.
While I have worked so hard all of my life to follow my dreams, and now as college graduation is right around the corner, I now have a job I never could have imagined but am just as passionate about: Cancer Advocate for every other #FutureCancerSurvivor. Funny how life works. I know I will celebrate many more cancerversaries, and I hope one day every person diagnosed will too.
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Take care of yourselves,