Serene, Hodgkin Lymphoma Survivor
When I was young I used to dream about my bright future, and imagine where I would live, what my wedding dress would look like, and how independent and strong I would become on my own. I used to think growing up is a definite yes to happiness, as if adding years meant adding joy.
How naïve of me. As I approach my 27th birthday in just a couple of days, I realize how far away and out of touch with reality I actually was. As the years quickly passed by me, I was hit with unknown emotions from experiencing tragedy, loss, and the big scary “C” word – cancer. When bad news affects others, it’s shocking. Sometimes it’s hard to process the news, as our minds internally tell us, “I can’t imagine what I would do if that was me.” Because while we hear these daunting things happen to others all the time, however they could never happen to us…until it does.
When I was first diagnosed with stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma in late 2020, I thought my doctor had mistakenly read the wrong chart. I figured there was an error somewhere, and I should possibly re-test again. There was no way 24 year old me, who went to the gym, became vegan for a year, and stayed away from nicotine had the unlucky card of cancer. But that’s all it is – an unlucky draw in the cards.
Cancer is a different experience for everyone; there is no “average” or “typical”
way in which people go through it. Between the many appointments, tests, and labs, it took me some time to eventually come to terms with my reality and understand the severity of my situation. Once I did, I quickly came to realize this is just a moment in time of my life. It will not fully define who I am. I wanted to go through my treatment in silence, with only the support of my family and close friends. I shielded myself from the world, steering clear from being questioned. I figured that if I pretended it wasn’t not happening, then I could trick myself into believing it. I did my own silent research on the internet and read different stories of those who have been through the same thing, but never once did I reach out or connect with anyone, because I did not want to believe that I was sick like them.
My first couple months through treatment, I continued to go to work, attend nights out with friends, and be myself as much as I could. In one way, this truly was good for me. However, in another way I know I was quickly exhausting my body and mind. I was so determined in proving to myself that this disease and the poisonous medicine spewing through my veins would not get to me. Six months and six cycles of ABVD later, I was officially deemed in remission. This was such a milestone for me. I did it. I beat this ugly disease and now I’m free!
As much as I wanted to pretend this experience was just a time in my past, only 4 months after my treatment I began experiencing familiar symptoms. So many emotions and questions spun through my head: “Has my cancer returned this quickly?”. I was terrified of hearing the awful news and I left myself helpless and in denial.
With the sudden recurrence showing in my PET scan, I felt a blanket of emotions wash over me, rapidly realizing this wasn’t just a moment in time of my life, but actually a part of who I am.
Exactly a year later from my first treatment, I began a clinical trial for Hodgkin lymphoma relapse with City of Hope: two cycles of ICE chemo followed by stem cell therapy. This time around I began posting about my journey on social media, and linking with so many amazing individuals with the same story from all around the world. I instinctively felt more at peace and more connected to myself and HL.
Suddenly this moment in time didn’t feel so isolating and stressful anymore. Before, I was trying to maintain this seemingly desirable lifestyle where everything is perfect, but that is not realistic. I know now everyone fights an internal battle. Everyone struggles, and this struggle of mine hasn’t become a “phase”, but instead a long term part of my life and a part of who I am.
Staying in the hospital for a month recovering from the stem cell transplant was one of the most powerful and excruciating things I have ever done. It was hard. Hard on the mind and hard on the body. But I did it. I pushed through the constant nausea, fever, body aches, mouth pain, fatigue and anxiety. I had the right to call myself a cancer survivor. Yet a part of me didn’t feel like I deserved to be recognized as a “survivor” because there are so many other people who really battle for years and go through the toughest treatments with bad news after bad news. I look at those people and I know how much it took from them and how hard they fought to survive. I didn’t deserve to carry the title proudly because I didn’t suffer enough to earn it. That is the epitome of survivors’ guilt. But after the transplant, I took a look in the mirror, glancing at the scar on my chest, and took pride in the accomplishment of fighting and winning the battle against this life threatening disease. If anything, it made me feel empowered rather than victimized and that’s something.
Just as the cancer experience varies widely, there is no right or wrong way to feel about having the disease. How you feel about it is simply how you feel. This disease and all the baggage it comes with has transformed so many areas of my life. From the black hole of depression and hopelessness and feeling like I had no control over what was happening, to the mass appreciation I have for every passing moment in the day. I’ve begun to practice daily gratitude and focus on the good, because there is so much good. Anxiety and gratitude simply cannot occupy the same space in my mind.
I passionately believe that by being conscious of the thoughts I think and the words I speak that I can continue to thrive.
I have come to terms with understanding I remain a cancer patient. I live a life of no guarantees. But I passionately believe that by being conscious of the thoughts I think and the words I speak that I can continue to thrive.
I say thank you to my amazing body for its resilience and strength and I say thank you to cancer for awakening in me an intense appreciation for so many things. Life is good and I am blessed.