Wednesday, December 12, 2012
This was written first when I was only one and half years out of treatment, and then edited again when I was approaching my 25th birthday. I will now be 26 at the end of this month. I have struggled emotionally, even three years after, but I have continued to build the life I want and hope for.
I am in a very different place right now. I feel content with my life. I have significantly moved forward with what I deemed important, and I am not crying myself to sleep on any night of the week. I have found new ways to define myself, and it is not through any job, or hobby. It is through who I am. It has been a long time coming to finally be at this point.
I am two years out of an Ivy League college, 15 months out of treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and unemployed. At the age of 24, where a young adult seeks independence and autonomy, I am still living at home and dependent on my loving and generous family. I blame my unemployment on being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 22. However, the after math of my cancer is almost harder to swallow then the treatment was. Here I am, talented and ambitious, but struggling emotionally. I have quit two jobs in the past six months. The only constant I have had over the past 15 months are CAT scans and check ups.
Cancer gives you a schedule. It is physically exhausting and emotionally taxing, but it has a structure. Or at least the treatment does. My structure lasted for 6 months, with ABVD treatment every other week for approximately 2.5 hours. Outside of that time I packed my schedule with everything I could think of to distract me. I enrolled in a class at Montclair University, I gave private pitching lessons, I worked part-time at Starbucks, and I planned a backpacking trip to Europe.
The backpacking trip allowed for me to escape everything I so desperately needed to get away from; all those cancer related doctor’s appointments. For one month, I could simply enjoy my life. I focused on a whole new adventure with my boyfriend, because spending a month together travelling is a bonding experience. It was so much more wonderful to bond over taking two and a half days to get to Greece from Italy, instead of chemotherapy. The Europe trip was only the first step in pushing cancer as far away from me as possible. I realized that not only are there a lot of steps to move forward after cancer, but I do not think the process ever really ends. It never ends because you can never forget that you had cancer.
"After cancer" is a statement that doesn't quite makes sense as cancer still controls part of my life. I have taken most of my life back, but understandably, cancer has changed me down to my soul. I still have scans to go for every four months, but more significantly, I am stuck picking up the pieces of what cancer and chemo left. Ideas of what life should be, what I want out of MY life and how I desire to live my life. Cancer alters previous conceptions of what is valuable. I am not writing or speaking of how I value life more, I have always valued my life. Cancer has changed my desires. It has placed different choices directly in front of my face. They are unavoidable.
Now, I have all these desires and goals, but I feel thrown backwards by cancer. We spend years getting ready to go into the real world. Inch by inch our culture eases us into being independent. We start when we are young, and by the time we reach our college graduation, we are ready to venture off on our own. There is one problem with this system for someone like me. For six months, all of my independence was taken away from me. My self sufficiency was stripped away, and I felt like a child, because I was being taken care of like a child. I backtracked to a middle schooler where my parents still took care of me, but I could still go out and socialize a small amount. I had permission to sit on the couch all day if I felt like it. I called out of work when necessary and cancelled my pitching lessons when I was not feeling up to it. I did not go party with friends anymore, and I mostly sat in my house. Once in a while, I would gather enough energy for a special event, such as a friend’s birthday party, but I would mostly spend time in front of the television. During the last half of treatment, I was in my house even more. The cumulative effects of treatment made it so I felt the chemo in my body past the point of not feeling good for just the weekend. I wasn't feeling one hundred percent any day of the week. I stopped feeling like myself and I was not able to do everything I had planned. My plans were on hold for what felt like such a long time. But just because treatment is over, does not mean you are fully recovered. It took me months to get my energy back. It is difficult to even explain the level of exhaustion I felt almost constantly.
What would I do once my energy came back? I had no idea. Although I am still a recent graduate, the questions I face in interviews include things like "What have you been up to since graduation?" As time goes on, this question becomes more and more difficult to answer. Yes, I did more in this past year besides have chemo injected into my body, but in this competitive job market, saying I traveled for a few months doesn't quite cut it. I could open up about my health, but sometimes there is not an appropriate opportunity. Although I have no qualms about talking about my cancer, sometimes it can be emotional. I feel trapped between explaining my cancer, and trying to get a job on my own, regardless of the gaps in my resume. Nobody prepared me for this during college. I fear that my resume looks like I just could not get a job for almost two years after graduation.
What I feel would truly help me move on past cancer is starting my life. That includes a job that would allow me to become financially independent. For months after cancer, when I just was not up to working, I was asking my Dad for money to go out with my friends. I had spent all my money on what I call an "after cancer trip". I was backpacking in Europe with my boyfriend and enjoying every single moment without chemo, until I came back home and the anxiety of having to start my life came down on me full force. Although after cancer all I wanted to do was everything, I had to face reality and get a job. Even aside from the challenges of landing a job in this economy, I think I have a bit of post traumatic stress disorder. How am I supposed to jump into a full time job without first dealing with my own emotions and feelings?
It is now later in the same year, and I turn 25 in just sixteen days. I can still tap into these complex emotions regarding cancer. I still feel that life can be bitter and unfair. I still ask “why me?”, and I still wonder what life would have been like without cancer. However, I have to admit, I never expected to know myself so well at just 25 years old. I am finally excited to celebrate my birthday later this month, and I have grown to be proud of how I handled myself during cancer. In fact, I am just proud of who I am at almost 25 years old. I am proud that I moved out of the house. I am proud that I have big dreams, and I am excited that I will not know where I will be next year. After all this time, I no longer have inner turmoil where I am constantly struggling with what I “need” to be doing. I have learned to focus on what I believe to be important, and accept that life is always changing, and moving.