To Put It Nicely: Cancer Sucks
My name is Lauryn. I was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia on October 16, 2019. I was 20 years old and a junior at Penn State when I received my diagnosis. My chemotherapy treatment lasted about 2 ½ years. Thankfully, I rang the bell on February 23, 2022. I am in the phase of recovery and monthly blood tests, and I hope to get my mediport out soon!
Throughout treatment, friends and family often asked me questions about my cancer. I always welcomed these, answering as best as I could to really paint the picture of my cancer. “How has cancer affected your life?” is probably one of the best questions to address. So here is my attempt.
To put it nicely, cancer sucked. My whole world changed in a matter of days. I had to medically withdraw from college, move back home and quit my jobs and hobbies. My social life came to a halt thanks to my nearly nonexistent immune system. Seeing family and friends became a reprieve and a chore at the same time. Public outings (or even nights in) included some serious planning. I had to think about things that I never would have before. I had to consider what time of day to go out in public and ask anyone that I was seeing if they were sick or around anyone sick; if the answer was yes, I couldn’t see them. Despite being so excited to see loved ones and friends, I was often plagued with anxiety during their visits. I was anxious about getting sick and complicating my treatment. My excitement to see anyone was replaced with worry and a nervous feeling in my gut. Cancer made it hard to fully enjoy myself, even during happy times. The meticulousness of everything cancer-related is enough to drive anyone crazy. Some days, I couldn’t get out of bed — not from physical fatigue but from mental exhaustion and sadness. Other days, I wanted to be full of energy and do fun things, but my body simply wouldn’t allow it. My body changed. My reflection in the mirror became almost unrecognizable in the matter of a month. Steroids bloated my whole body, literally from head to toe. I gained about 12 pounds in my first month of treatment (thank you, prednisone and stress eating). My weight fluctuated throughout my treatment. I eventually gained a total of around 25 pounds and also lost some of it quickly due to nausea. These fluctuations gave me stretch marks literally everywhere. I also have a few scars from my port and PICC placements. My hair loss happened around the second month of treatment. For a while, my curly hair was coming out in clumps in the shower, on my pillow and even while I was violently vomiting. I remember puking and my hair was getting in the way. I was so over it, I literally stood up from the toilet, brushed my teeth and then went to my dad and demanded he shave it for me. Part of me felt liberated and the other part of me mourned the hair loss and what I once looked like. Symptoms from chemo changed day to day; different drugs yielded different symptoms. My most repetitive ones were obviously nausea, vomiting and fatigue. The weirdest symptoms I’ve had came from methotrexate toxicity: I was quadriplegic for about a day, had stroke-like symptoms and couldn’t talk. That was the scariest single moment during my treatment, although the whole experience was scary.
Even though I rang the bell, cancer STILL sucks. Once my treatment ended I was so ready to get back to normalcy, so ready to dive back into life and actually have energy. I had been looking forward to being off chemo for 2 ½ long years. But, for me, a sense of security came with the chemo. I knew it was keeping me in remission. I worried that once I stopped chemo, the leukemia could come back. Although I try to avoid it, I can’t help but wonder if it will. If I got it once, I could get it again … right? These thoughts are alarming, to say the least, but they have to be somewhat normal. I feel like anyone who goes through something traumatic worries about a recurrence.
Although I just spent a lot of time discussing the negatives of cancer, my experience was not solely negative. Overcoming cancer really forced me to learn crucial life lessons. For one, I’ve learned to cherish life in all of its forms (the good, the bad and the ugly). Cancer made me realize how lucky I am to be able to experience everything in life. I feel like having to face a life-threatening disease at such a young age has made me appreciate every minute I have here on earth; I think that a full, deep appreciation for life usually doesn’t happen until much later in someone’s life. It’s hard to explain my newfound appreciation. But, I feel more thankful for anything and everything in life. I feel it in my heart. I am just glad to be here writing this. Second, I fully understand the importance of supporting others. Receiving support during my treatment made me feel whole, loved and positive. Whenever I didn’t get the support I needed and/or wanted from someone, I felt hurt, disappointed and angry. I understand that cancer is a hard topic to bring up for outsiders looking in, but I guarantee that bringing cancer up isn’t nearly as hard as going through cancer treatment. It is so much better to just check in and ask the uncomfortable questions. So just do it. Just ask. Check in. It will make someone’s day a little less rough. Lastly, I learned to take things one day at a time; doing so almost eliminates the feelings that come with trauma — feeling overwhelmed, afraid, shocked, angry and heartbroken. I never truly understood the meaning of taking things one day at a time until going through the hardships of chemotherapy.
Cancer is often considered a “taboo” topic. In my opinion, talking about it (if we choose) helps make it more relatable to people — whether someone is diagnosed, has a loved one who was diagnosed or just wants to know more details about the extensive ups and downs of cancer. Talking about it makes me feel better, and I hope that someone reading this feels that they can relate.
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