In 2009, just two weeks out of high school, I was loving summer life and preparing for college. Few things in life seem to come easy, so of course the transition to college threw me a curve ball. A big curve ball. Cancer.
Fast forward a year. Luckily living a life of remission, I had finished an academically brutal first year of school, figured out the easiest paths to walk on campus with my recovering leg, and understood that most of my peers would never understand the strains cancer was taking on not just my body, but my mind.
As I was waiting alone in my oncologist's office, a nurse I wasn't familiar with peeped her head in the door.
"I'm looking for Mr. Furman."
That's nice, but my father wasn't there. He was off at another hospital getting stitches in his thumb after he played with the motor drill a little too hard.
I politely said, "I believe you misread it. It's 'Brina,' not 'Brian.'"
Confused, the nurse proceeded to ask, "Then where is Mrs. Furman?"
I kept my composure. "I believe you mean Miss Furman. And she's right here."
I am a pretty reasonable person. Read my name wrong? No worries. Most people can't get it right on their third try. Confuse the hour of my appointment? Frustrating, but mistakes happen. But what this nurse was about to say I would have never imagined.
"You're not the patient. You're so young."
I was appalled. Didn't this nurse know all these facts? Skin cancer is the second most common cancer diagnosis for young adults 15-29 years old. Women aged 39 and under have a higher probability of developing melanoma than any other cancer except breast cancer. Melanoma will kill someone in the next 62 minutes.
I think she saw my face turn to shock as it processed her statement. "Well, I'm sorry, but I'm just not used to seeing many young people in this office."
I am young. But since when did cancer care? When did cancer care if I had finished school? Did it ever ask me if I was married or had children yet? Did cancer ever take a minute and ask me if I wanted to see the world before it tried to kill me? Didn't she understand that cancer could care less about the number of years I've been on this earth?
She left the room a bit stunned, apologizing profusely. I didn't want the apology. I wanted her to understand.
I wish I could stand in front of every single doctor, nurse, medical technician, and health care worker and say, "I have cancer. I'm the patient. Do you understand?"
I've noticed that I'm usually the only person under the age of 40 in the waiting room, so don't tell me I'm young. Age is not the issue. Cancer is.
Freshman year of college is a mess. Moving in is a hassle and as a girl, the dorm room with the concrete white walls has to be decorated and beautified. Creating the prime schedule without having those brutal 8 a.m. 300 person lectures is nearly impossible. Making friends so you don't have to sit alone in the dining hall with your overpriced, overcooked pasta is such a process. Understanding that mom isn't there to do your laundry and dad isn't there to watch the football game with you takes getting used to.
Think about those days with all the stress and anxiety. Think about those days and add cancer to the mix.
I was 18 when I was diagnosed with Melanoma. I was in the process of raiding Bed, Bath and Beyond for college gear and ordering my textbooks to start my freshman year. And then I was suddenly under anesthesia having inches of tissue extracted from my calf.
I moved into my dorm room in late August battling the heat and a recovering right leg still unsure how to walk the stairs. My mom made my bed, my dad set up my Wi-Fi and my sister stood watching, unhelpful as most siblings are. I kissed them all goodbye and that was it. I was in college. I was living on my own. Heck, I finally had a TV in my bedroom! It all seemed perfectly normal.
I had dreamed of college for forever. You see the fun and glorified life all college students are supposed to have in every young movie. The time spent hanging on the lawn, cheering at football games, socializing the parties with the famous red solo cups. What you don't see is the exhaustion and frustration that comes with it. The long hours cooped up in the library because you understand absolutely nothing going on in lecture. Or the mental breakdowns when you don't understand what you want to do with your life and are under so much pressure to declare it, the much more unglamorous, yet ever so real side of being a college student.
Then I had a whole new list of problems as a freshman. I had a leg that did not want to cooperate. It was less than two months out of the hospital after having surgery to remove cancer cells from my body. I was thankfully in a remission stage, but that didn't mean everything was fine. My leg was tender to the touch. It shot a burst of frustrating pain to my body with every step on it. Then, I had a mind still trying to understand what had happened. I was a cancer survivor. I was confused if I was embarrassed or proud. I was depressed and ecstatic at the same time. And I felt like no one else on my campus would ever understand.
At my university, you are required to take English 101 as a freshman. If you obtain an A in the class, you are exempt from the required professional English course taken your junior year. I was enrolled in English 101 and scoring high marks throughout the semester.
I began developing pain so severe that I had needed to visit my oncologist. In some ways, I am lucky: my oncologist is merely an hour away from my university. On the other hand, I was a freshman with no car and a full 18-credit schedule. After coordinating with the hospital and my mom as my shuttle service, I obtained an appointment on a Wednesday afternoon and would only be missing one English class. That one class would cost me.
I emailed the professor in advance explaining I was ill and would not be in class. I received notes from a fellow classmate. And I came to the next class with a doctor's note in hand.
He took the note. He excused my absence so I would not lose attendance points. But he insisted there was no way I could make up the peer review session that I missed. It didn't matter that I hadn't been sleeping or hung over. It didn't matter that I had cancer. Fact was, I wasn't there and apparently that was my entire fault, not the disease that had tried to kill me only weeks before.
I'd walk away with an 89.3 percent in the class. I did the math. If the professor excused my oncologist appointment, I would have had a 92 percent. Thank you professor; I'm now enrolled in another course. But really, thank you cancer, for getting in the way of my college course plan. As always, I appreciate your support.
As a freshman, I was having a hard time weaving through college and I was feeling this rut of depression. As I stood in the dinner line for "make your own stir" fry after class, a guy accidentally took my bowl. How dare you take my stir-fry? I cried right then and there. Maybe the depression was more than I had thought it to be.
After I was diagnosed with melanoma, no one ever said to me, "Hey, you should see a psychologist and talk all this out." I think, if someone had suggested it, I might have seen my diagnosis, battle, and survivorship a bit different at the time. A simple mistake in the dining hall had brought me to tears. I was then that I decided it was time I took control of my life and saw someone.
So off I headed to my university's health center located on campus, since it was the easiest and quickest way to get the opportunity to talk to someone. I made an appointment and met with a doctor. The doctor had a list of the standard background questions which she began asking me to complete the intake process. "Are you or have you ever been suicidal?" No. It's never crossed my mind. "On a scale of 1 to 10, how depressed do you feel?" Scale of 1 to 10 questions are my least favorite questions in the world. How am I supposed to know what a 10 means? But okay, I'll play along. Well lady, considering I bawled over my stir-fry yesterday, I'm going to say 8.
Without a change of her solemn face, she looked me dead in the eye and stated, "I find it hard to believe you aren't suicidal if you are that depressed."
Thank goodness I didn't listen to this comment carefully. I don't need a medical degree to tell you that this woman essentially suggested I ought to be suicidal. Thank you, but I was coming here so that I never felt suicidal, not so that you could put ideas in my head. The room became just a little hotter as I pondered how to escape this situation. But the questions only continued to increase the shock in the room.
"Do you consider anything in your life to be tragic?"
That's a loaded question. With a half smile I stated, "Yes. I have had cancer, watched two of my grandparents die with my own two eyes, and I saw my childhood home burn down in flames while I watched outside.
Her face stayed stone serious as she stated, "That does not happen to people."
Sometimes, I wish it hadn't. I wish I never had lost my grandparents and that the goods of my childhood home weren't destroyed. And some days I really wish I wasn't a young adult with a cancer diagnosis under my belt. But regardless, it did happen.
I asked her why not. Why couldn't I be 19 in her office as a cancer survivor? She didn't quite have an answer. Her mouth opened and closed but nothing seemed to come out. I don't think she expected me to be asking any questions.
Sometimes people don't believe me. What do you mean you had cancer? How are you so damn casual about it? I'll tell you how: because I need you to know. I need you to have a glimpse of what my life is like "on the other side." I need you to know there are 20-year-olds out there dealing with a disease that no one in his/her life should ever had to deal with period. But it happens.
Some days, I'm glad I had cancer. I'm glad I got that glimpse of what it's like to not know if I'll be around tomorrow. It made me appreciate life a whole lot more. I'm glad I found something I'm passionate about and a job that helps me make a difference. I'm glad I suffered it so I can create awareness for others. If I can convince just one person to stay out of a tanning bed and reduce his/her risk of developing skin cancer in his/her life, I'm glad I had the opportunity.
Sitting in that doctor's office that day wasn't easy. There was nothing fun or enjoyable about it. But, I'm 21 now & I'm a cancer survivor! And that's just a basic fact of my life. Recognizing that some people still don't seem to understand that fact does frustrate me. But it also reminds me how much work remains to change this.
One of the problems of being a young adult with cancer is that you aren't really sure if you're the supporter or the supported sometimes.
I'll never forget the day I was told I had cancer. My parents knew before me since the dermatologist called my house while I was out. My mom told me that I had cancer in a monotone voice and then broke into tears. When I saw my dad, he hugged me for an awkwardly long time.
A lot of the time, I would get "are you physically going to survive?" Yes. I was lucky in that my cancer was caught early and my prognosis was positive. But no one had really taken a moment and asked "are you mentally making it in there?"
I found myself in a bind. On one hand, I needed to break down. I needed to cry as I had those moments of my life flashing before my eyes. I needed to scream that I didn't understand what doctors were telling me. I needed to punch a wall because, frankly, I was angry some mole so small had the nerve to try to kill me.
On the other hand, I saw my family suffering. I would catch my dad staring into his standard black cup of coffee in the morning with an expression of misery covering his face. I would find my mom crying when she thought no one was around. And my sister would spend days being a perfect angel, acting polite and helping out as much as she could, which was by far not her standard routine. Wasn't it selfish for me to be depressed when they obviously needed me to be strong?
Here I was, fighting cancer and fighting a smile for my family.
I think like many young adults facing cancer, I struggled to find my place in my cancer process. I wasn't five; my parents didn't have the legal rights to control my life and my cancer treatments. I wasn't 75; my children weren't there to do all the research and make decisions for me. I was 18. I was just a legal adult. I still had mom and dad around to lean on and ask for guidance. But I was officially an individual. This was my fight. Supposed to go find independence, but not the time. Needed the support. Branching out.
It wasn't until I was through my treatment that I let down my guard. In fact, it wouldn't be until Thanksgiving break that I came home and really told my parents that cancer had really affected me, not just them. They would have been there for me in a heartbeat had I asked, but how do you ask someone to give you a part of themselves when they can barely manage their own feelings? I felt guilty. I felt confused. But in the moment, I didn't have much time to think of anything. I was there. I was there for my parents. I would do whatever was asked of me and jump through hoops to make them smile and see that everything would be okay.
Sometimes, I think the forced smile kept me going. It kept me thinking positively and didn't allow me to dive into the "what if"s cancer brings up. I love my family and I appreciate everything they have done for me, from the sponge baths to the chauffeuring to doctors. But damn, couldn't I be the emotional one for a minute?
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