What having cancer in college has taught me

‘Every breath you breathe is a gift you’ll never get back, and every person in your life that you get to share those breaths with are irreplaceable’

Cancer was a word that used to scare me.

On December 18th of last year, three weeks before the start of winter term here in Hanover, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. On that afternoon, I already knew what my doctor was going to say before she even sat down, took her glasses off, and drew in a deliberate breath. My ultrasound had revealed a tumor heavily pervaded by microcalcifications. The surrounding lymph nodes in that region were swollen. A recent blood work exam revealed a suspicious white blood cell count. To put it simply, I had already mentally and emotionally prepared myself to hear the word “cancer” that day, and I was right.

The biopsy revealed a clear case of papillary carcinoma – a slow-growing type of cancer that affects 86 of 100 thyroid cancer victims. It had manifested itself into a two centimeter tumor on my left thyroid lobe and a one millimeter tumor on my right. Surgery was needed immediately (a full thyroidectomy, a partial parathyroidectomy and the removal of multiple lymph nodes), and treatment soon after. However, no matter how many times I had prepared myself for the news in my head, hearing the final verdict gain its full resonance out loud was jarring. My face was composed, but my interior was a jumbled mess of questions and fear. Is this real? What does this mean for me? How will I get through this? 

Of course, this fear was not misplaced. For millions of people, cancer is associated with tremendous pain and suffering and heartache. It is a lethal and unforgiving disease that steals our loved ones from us and tears families apart. This battle has been anything but painless or uncomplicated for me, and these are the specifics I’m not going to share.

However, as I sit here in Baker library – a month and a half out of surgery, two weeks out of treatment – trying to write my story down for the first time in the hopes to make sense of everything – all I am really able to do is thank God that I am one of the lucky ones. I am lucky that I have a family that has filled these months with endless love and sacrifice, teammates, friends and sorority sisters who have been my home away from home and have supplied me with smiles and constant positive reinforcement, professors who have been so understanding and supportive of my situation this term, doctors (the surgeons in Houston, the oncologists and nuclear medicine doctors at DHMC, and all the others in between) who have performed an incredibly successful procedure and have devoted their time and energy to my recovery. My cancer is curable. I am on the mend, and though my body still has a long way to go, the memory of that afternoon of my diagnosis seems like a lifetime away. I am feeling healthier now than I have in awhile, and incredibly happy, and that is all I can ask.

So, as I continue to weigh in on my experience, I want to use this piece to share what I have learned so far from having cancer in college, and even if only one person finds this helpful or worth their while, I will consider it a success.

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Perspective is everything

In college, seeing the forest from the trees is one of the hardest things to do. In an environment that convinces us that midterm grades, GPA’s or certain job offers define our self-worth, it’s difficult to take a step back and realize how insignificant it all really is in the grand scheme of things, and how lucky we are to even be in a place to complain about difficult exams or stressful job interviews. Before this term, I complained so often about these things. Now, complaining about a test score seems so arbitrary compared to the fact that I’m happy and healthier, or that I had the privilege of waking up again to a new day when so many others didn’t. Don’t let the microscopic lens of college struggles narrow your perspective on how good we have it. Instead of stressing, there are so many blessings we could be counting instead.

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Mental health is SO important

I will say this one more time, because it is that important – mental health is SO important. It is not something to just put on the back burner. My battle has been just as much of a mental and emotional marathon as it has been a physical marathon. I have recently learned that it is so important to make time in my schedule to focus on my mental health instead of just dismissing it as “eh, it’ll fix itself later.” If you are going through a difficult time and you really need to talk to someone – seek out a counselor or a friend for assistance. If life is ever stressing you out so much that you are feeling suffocated  – drop what you are doing and take a long walk to clear your thoughts and breathe in some fresh air. Being kind to your mental health is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of maturity.

Don’t put off that phone call with your mom

Or that text to your dad, or that visit to your grandparents, or that Skype call with your friend studying abroad, or that lunch date with your classmate – you get the point. Cancer has shown me how fragile our bodies really are, and the fragility of life has been on my mind constantly these days. It has helped me see that every breath you breathe is a gift you’ll never get back, and every person in your life that you get to share those breaths with are irreplaceable. Don’t let the craziness of your schedule take away from making those crucial memories. Take the time to ask about that person’s day, and really listen. Strike up that conversation with the girl who sits next to you in lecture. Hold on to that hug with your brother or sister a few seconds longer than you normally would. REVEL in the company you keep.

That ice cream in the dining hall? Eat it

It’s good for the soul.

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Your professors are people too, and they can REALLY rock

Before this term, I hardly devoted any time to getting to personally know my professors. I showed up to their lectures and left when they were over. However, with the nature of my situation, I have been forced to communicate with and spend more time with my professors, and I am so thankful for it. One day after class, I was in the middle of another long conversation with my anthropology professor, and he shared with me a very personal experience of his own with cancer, as one of his family members is currently battling it. The conversation melted into themes of spirituality, faith, and life in general. He’ll never know it, but sharing his story and making that personal connection with me after lecture will stick with me forever (and guarantee my enrollment in more of his courses). Long story short, show up to office hours every now and then for the hell of it. You might walk into a new friendship.

Life is hard. Life is unfair. But it is still beautiful

This might seem obvious or cliche, but it is so easy to forget, and it is something I have relearned over and over again throughout the last few months. We have the tendency to spend so much time complaining about the things that happen to us that seem unfair or burdensome that we forget how nice a smile feels, or how fulfilling watching a sunrise is, or how a meaningful conversation that lingers into the early hours of the morning can turn around even the worst of days. There is so much beauty and happiness to be had in this life, and they always, always outweigh the bad things.

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Your battle does not define you

Now, I can say that the word cancer does not scare me. As I currently await the results of my latest scans, with an uphill battle ahead, I refuse to let it have power over me. Whatever your ailment, disability, affliction or hardship may be – because this life never fails to give all of us our own prospective battles to fight – it does NOT define you, and it does NOT have to have power over you. No matter how uncontrollable or impassable a situation may seem, never give it the ability to define you or dictate your happiness. As the great Albus Dumbledore once said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”

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