“You have cancer.” 13 letters, 4 syllables, and 3 words that no person ever wants or expects to hear in their lifetime. I especially didn’t expect to hear those words directed at me as a 17 year old high schooler, when I felt like my life was just beginning. The moment I was told I had the dreaded C word changed my life forever, but I am grateful for the ways I have grown and changed as a result.
High school is a transformative time for all teenagers. It’s the last time where you can fully soak in the joys of having no responsibilities before going off to college or working and living on your own. Not everyone is a big fan of high school, but for me, I loved it. I was an officer for my school’s dance team, I had an amazing group of friends, and I loved the freedom that came with no obligations. I loved the carefree nature of high school, but I had to grow up pretty fast, however, when I received the news of my cancer diagnosis on September 4th, 2018.
Dance had always been a big part of my life growing up. I was familiar with sore muscles and intermittent pain from kicking too high or overexerting myself. So when my left hip started to bother me about a year before my diagnosis, I didn’t think too much about it. I figured that I must have injured myself somehow and resorted to ice packs and ibuprofen to ease the discomfort. I went to a chiropractor to get tips on how to manage the pain, which seemed to do the trick, and I forgot about the pain for a while. A few months later, the hip pain flared up again and it started to wake me up at night. We went back to the chiropractor, who suggested that my hip was weak and gave me exercises to try and strengthen it, but no matter how much I performed them, nothing changed. The pain came off and on until the pain got so unbearable and debilitating that finally I decided to see an orthopedic hip specialist in August of 2018.
The hip specialist did an xray and could tell almost immediately that something wasn’t right. He referred me to Dr. Ernst (Chappie) Conrad, an orthopedic surgeon, who told us just a few days later that there was a tumor in my left femur. “70 percent chance that it’s benign, 30 percent chance it’s Ewing’s Sarcoma,” Chappie told me and my parents. Those odds seemed to be in my favor, so we scheduled a biopsy for September 4th and I went into the surgical biopsy expecting to wake up with the benign tumor removed from my body and on my way to a quick recovery.
When I woke up, however, I got the news that no 17 year old girl ever expects to hear: it’s cancer. Some further scans revealed that the cancer had spread to my lungs and a spot on my spine, so doctors had to develop a plan of attack pretty quick. For the next nine months, the oncology floor at Texas Children’s Hospital became my second home, the place where I spent countless hours being pumped full of chemo drugs and fluids. I had about three months of chemotherapy, surgery to give me a prosthetic hip and femur, four more months of chemo, and then a month of radiation on my lungs and spine before finishing treatment and going into remission on May 29th of 2019!
Although it’s been over a year since completing treatment, I still remember every detail of my journey like it was yesterday. I remember the fatigue that left me bedridden for days at a time. I remember the nausea that would rise from my stomach up into my throat despite being given heavy anti-nausea drugs to ease the side effects. I remember the pain and frustration of my leg rehab. I remember all of the other side effects I encountered along the way, and I remember how even my good days were littered by feelings of discomfort.
There was absolutely no part of having cancer that anyone should ever have to endure. It was hard and oftentimes lonely, but I grew more than I ever imagined possible through the experience. In the very darkest of circumstances when the future seemed uncertain, I found hope and joy in the little things. I learned to focus on the good instead of the bad and shift my perspective to see the glass half full instead of half empty. When my blood counts were high enough to let me start chemotherapy each round, we celebrated in ways that we never would have celebrated blood counts before! I found fullness of joy in the little things, such as being silly with my parents on my anti-nausea medication and playing games with sweet friends who always were by my side. I developed a greater sense of empathy for those in the midst of hardship, because I too had experienced adversity that taught me compassion and understanding.
Life during and after cancer hasn’t been easy. It’s been full of insecurity, pain, and sorrow. But along the way I learned to look for the silver linings and appreciate the little things because I get another day on this earth, and that is something worth celebrating!