Coping With Cancer
I had cancer. Twice. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma both times. I have been in remission for over a year now. I go to college, I have friends, I participate in a multitude of activities. You would never know unless you asked, or looked me up on social media. Sometimes I reflect on what got me through it, how I “survived”. Surely, I had an easier cancer than others in terms of treatment and curability. I was told by doctors that if you had to get cancer, this was the one to get. Although Hodgkin’s is not the worst disease ever, there was so much trauma and hardship during that time that it is difficult to say that I had it easy. What I know for sure is that my family and friends always had my back, whether they were close to home, or hours away.
June 20th 2013. The walls were most likely colorful and bright. But whenever my mind remembers that room in the ER, I always picture it dark and scary. I was sitting up on the bed, the TV was on with the volume low in the background with some cooking show that no one was actually watching. My family surrounded me, sitting in chairs around the room. My mom, my twin sister, my older sister, my dad and my stepmother. They all sat anxiously awaiting the results from my scans. I tried not to look at the IV in my arm, which scared the hell out of me. I didn’t know what was going on, why I had all these tests done, why I was here. But for some reason, I was nervous.
The doctor walked in and closed the curtain over the glass door with a grave expression on her face. She sat down in the chair by the computer and we all focused on her silently as she spoke. “After a few tests, it looks like Lymphoma.” A sharp gasp from my mother quickly indicated to me that this was bad. She came over to me and hugged me tightly. I felt almost numb, but automatically put my arms around her as well. I’m sure the rest of my family had some sort of reaction of distress as well. The doctor continued, “we’re going to have to do a few more tests to be sure, but we wanted to let you know that’s what the signs are pointing to. Any questions?” Before anyone could speak, I blurted out, “What’s Lymphoma?” After seventeen years of life, I really didn’t know my diseases. I don’t remember who told me, but I think it was my mother. She said softly, “it’s cancer.” I know I should have freaked out, but I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t know what to think.
At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), I received support from sympathetic nurses, therapists, social workers, music and art therapists, and more. I was also able to attend a good amount of school despite my treatments, which was fortunate for me, as not everyone has that opportunity with cancer. The hospital environment and my ability to participate in a good portion of everyday life gave me a greater hope I might not have otherwise had, allowing me to be able to cope easier throughout my treatments. After four rounds of outpatient chemotherapy, I was declared cancer-free by September 2013, at the start of my senior year of high school.
March 2014. I walked into the small meeting room at the CHOP in my hometown, my mom and twin sister following behind me. My dad was already seated at the table and ready to go, a pen and pad of paper in front of him, which I assumed was full of questions. My mom sat down in a chair at the opposite end of the table while my sister and I sat in the middle. I remembered the phone call last night, the unbelievable news still shocking my system the next day. I sat down and side hugged my dad before a few doctors and a social worker entered the room and took their seats across the table. We had a lot to discuss, they said.
Relapse meant that the original treatment plan would not work again.
It would take a much longer process, including rounds of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant, and proton-therapy radiation. I would need a biopsy as soon as possible, a port inserted in my chest, and, if I chose, ovarian preservation surgery.
I tried to take the flood of information in, but I felt like I was drowning.
They told me I should still be able to graduate from high school, but I would miss a good amount of the rest of the school year. I would have to defer college for a year because my immune system would be compromised a long time after treatment. The list went on. The social worker sat off to the side, taking notes and nodding at appropriate times. After this long information session about the next year or more of my life came to a close, they opened the discussion up to questions. All my teenage brain could come up with was, “will I be able to go to Prom?”
The summer after I had graduated from high school, I was able to go with a few of my friends for a week to my Grandma’s house. Although I knew as soon as I returned, I would be back at the hospital for more chemotherapy. However, being so far away from Philadelphia and with friends and family helped me to forget all that, at least temporarily.
My Grandma has lived in Southampton, New York ever since I was born, and I’ve been over her house for holidays and summer vacations for as long as I can remember. My Grandma’s house has always been a place where I was away from the stresses of a normal routine. Of course, seeing my Grandma and Papa Bob came with its own special feeling of a home away from home. This was no different when I had cancer. Being with the comforting familiarity of my surroundings from her house, to shopping in places like East Hampton and Bridgehampton, to restaurants like Sip ‘n Soda and La Parmigiana, to Sag Harbor and Flying Point Beach. All of these places, to me, carry memories of peace and love. Going to my Grandma’s house was the perfect getaway to remind myself of what life can feel like without cancer, and gave me the rejuvenation I needed to carry through the rest of my treatments.
December 2014. I sat alone at my kitchen table with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in front of me as I slowly picked at it in between sips of chocolate milk. I pulled my scarf tighter around my bare neck and adjusted the cap over my bald head. It was always so cold up there. Suddenly, my phone rang. It was my doctor and I answered immediately. Unable to sit still during a phone call, I paced the room as I answered, “Hello”.
“Christa? It’s Dr. – We have the results back from your last scan and you’re in remission! Congratulations!”
I stopped dead. “Really?” A smile grew on my face as I did my happy dance. I never felt more grateful to be alive then in that moment, all alone in my kitchen.
I went into remission after a bone marrow transplant, and still had to endure four weeks of proton-radiation therapy and many months of isolation before I was completely “free” in the spring. Besides getting checked every few months, which will eventually turn to years unless something new comes up, I was free to enjoy my first year of college, previously delayed by my cancer. It has been a long journey since I was first diagnosed, but being able to have some normalcy or being able to get away to places like my Grandma’s every once in a while helped me cope and recharge for when times would get rough again.
I find myself appreciating every day just a little more. Every now and then, I pause and take it all in. What it means to be healthy. What it means to cope. What it means to live.