I remember my cancer diagnosis very clearly. It was three days before my college graduation in 2010, and while everyone else was celebrating and preparing for their new jobs, I was receiving the worst news of my life thus far: I had stage four Hodgkin's Lymphoma. In less than a week's time, my life had changed entirely. As the shock started to set in and I began sharing the news of my diagnosis with others, I vividly remember two or three different people (including doctors -- though not in oncology) telling me that I was lucky to have Hodgkin's, "the good kind of cancer." After spending the past three years in and out of treatment, I have come to dislike this phrase, as well as the general idea that any type of cancer can be labeled as "good."
At age 25, I have relapsed three times and had many different types of treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation, and an autologous stem-cell transplant. I've had great doctors and nurses, and a lot of support from my family and friends, but it has certainly been hard to put my life on hold for three years. Like most cancer patients, I have felt isolated and become more dependent on others for simple tasks. I've also experienced changes in my appearance and relationships, and have had my career path modified multiple times.
While most of my friends were busy starting their careers and truly gaining independence, I moved back home with my parents the day after graduation and started chemotherapy treatments. I had always prided myself on being independent and self-sufficient. I had gone to college six hours away from home, and had studied abroad in Argentina and interned in DC for a summer. My level of independence changed during treatment, as I was physically and mentally exhausted. Things that used to be simple, such as driving, scheduling appointments, cooking, and checking on prescriptions, all of a sudden became "too much" for me to handle myself. I was physically fatigued (and sometimes very ill) from treatments and emotionally so exhausted that I began relying on my parents to take care of me.
I've lost my hair twice, both times were equally traumatic. My hairlessness (eyebrows and eyelashes included) meant that my diagnosis was real, and that others would know it instantly upon looking at me. I have various scars from different biopsies, and have had a difficult time finding clothing to cover them all, not out of vanity, but instead because I do not enjoy constantly explaining my sickness in social settings. In total, I've lost about 40 pounds, and my hair has grown in very curly, after being stick straight for the first 22 years of my life. Even people who have known me for years do not always recognize me, and truthfully, I am just beginning to accept these changes myself.
My friendships changed dramatically. While many friends surprised me with their empathy and support, some simply couldn't handle the situation. My best friend of ten years disappeared from my life, shortly after hearing of my diagnosis. While I was at home trying to make sense of my diagnosis and deal with the different side effects from treatment, my other friends were all busy starting new jobs and adjusting to their new lives. Their lives seemed foreign to me, and I'm sure mine seemed the same way to them.
My career is still on hold. Each and every time I hear the word "remission," I start the job search and begin networking, so eager to start my first "real job." Like clockwork, by the time I am getting close to landing a job, I have a bad scan and end up back in treatment. Before my last scan, I had my bags packed and was ready to move to New York City to start a job in recruiting, but once again a bad put all career goals on hold... again.
Throughout treatment, I have met many people whose situations have been worse, and better than my own. Some had less treatment and fewer complications, others have struggled more than I ever may. Certainly some cancers, such as Hodgkin's, have better survival rates than others, yet the overall experience of being a cancer patient is extremely grueling, physically, mentally, and emotionally, regardless of the specific diagnosis.
As is true for anyone who has experienced a tragedy, I've learned more about myself, the world, and the things and people in my life that truly matter. I have a great family, awesome doctors, and many friendships that have helped keep me smiling during the past three years. I feel grateful for many things, yet my experience with Hodgkin's Lymphoma has been a tough one, it has never felt like "the good kind of cancer." Though experiences and diagnoses may differ, no cancer is "good," and no treatment "easy," especially when you're the patient.