A message to the 8,300 young adults who will be diagnosed with cancer this year in Canada
If you are anything like me, I bet you never would have thought that you would hear the word “cancer” uttered in your direction, at least not until you were well beyond your prime years. Cancer, to me, was a word that applied to those who had already lived full lives. Cancer wasn’t supposed to be for people my age. But it was, and unfortunately it still is.
Because you are reading this, I assume you may now be finding yourself in a similar predicament to my own. I first want to say I am sorry, because cancer is not anything we should ever have to experience. But I also want to say welcome to this beautiful, supportive, and caring community. I hope this letter finds you well.
This photo was taken at my senior year homecoming football game in October 2014, only five months before I was diagnosed with AML. I am in the middle wearing football jersey #61.
When I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in 2015, my world was flipped upside down. I am sure many of you will relate to this sentiment in some capacity. I went from being your typical high school senior, struggling with classes, tests, friends, and planning my future, to being the new kid on the block in my local cancer ward. What a change of pace.
In my opinion, the transition from “normal life” to “cancer life” is filled with grinding gears, bumps and forks in the road, and a few flat tires along the way. Sometimes, we can even run out of gas and find ourselves shut down completely. You may be thinking, “How am I supposed to maintain any type of normalcy when facing a new cancer diagnosis and running out of gas?” Let’s talk about it!
This photo was taken on a day when three of my close friends drove up to come visit me in the hospital. They brought cake, and the nurses graciously provided us with more than enough tiny ice-cream cups to have a kick-ass hospital party. Sometimes it is the little things (like tiny ice creams) that will get you through tough times.
When I was diagnosed on March 12, 2015, I was immediately admitted into the hospital where I would stay as an inpatient for 46 days followed by a lengthy few months of perpetual outpatient visits. I am sure we can all agree that any amount of time spent in the hospital feels like ages. It is not a friendly environment. It also doesn’t help that most hospital wards are just plain ugly, and sometimes even scary. This being said, I always had a few tricks up my sleeve to help improve my hospital experience. I would love to share them with you!
First, I think decorating is awesome. From day one, my inpatient room was decorated with my favourite stuffed animals, colourful blankets, comfy pillows, and, because I was in hospital over Easter, we even put-up sparkly Easter decorations! We did everything possible to make my hospital prison-cell room feel a little more like home.
Second, I tried to fill my space with as much positivity as possible. That meant inviting friends to visit, using technology like Skype or FaceTime to stay in contact with loved ones, and even having little cake and ice cream parties like you see in the photo above (p.s I also recommend taking advantage of hospital snacks in general, they kind of rock)! My friends, for the most part, would always manage to bring a smile to my face.
Third, I always had my phone, laptop, or iPad with me so that I could watch my favourite shows on Netflix and listen to my favourite music! The sounds of the hospital like the beeping of IV machines and the sound of call bells ringing can be exhausting, so drowning them out with your favourite media is a great option.
On the day of my second bone biopsy, two of my closest friends showed up to watch movies and help me stay active by accompanying me through the hospital for some short walks!
Even though I maintained close contact with my friends and family, cancer for me meant giving up my normal daily socialization in exchange for time spent with nurses and doctors instead. I sometimes felt isolated and alone, and that no one (especially my friends) could understand what I was going through. I wasn’t like everyone else anymore, I was unique, different, and facing challenges that not many of my peers will ever experience in their lifetimes. I simply did not feel normal.
You may feel like that right now, and I want to tell you that that is totally okay! It is important to know that though you may feel alone, the other 8,299 young adults that will face a similar diagnosis this year are experiencing similar feelings.
There is a massive community of YACCers and other YAs affected by cancer worldwide who have also experienced comparable sentiments at some point in their journey!
Making connections with other YAs living with cancer is a great step in building yourself a community that truly understands your struggles. In all honesty, I wish I had been able to connect with other YAs sooner! Reaching out to others who have or are experiencing the same difficulties as you is a great way to create a new social normal within your current life!
But you may be thinking, “Michaela, I have done all of these things and I still don’t feel like myself.” I want to tell you that I know exactly where you are coming from. The photo you see here is me the day my hair was shaved.
At my request, my lifelong hairdresser came into the hospital and took my mid-back length hair into a braid and cut it to be donated before using her clippers to take the rest of my hair. I remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself. Sometimes I look back on his photo and still have a hard time seeing myself within it.
When I was going through treatment, I felt like I had lost myself. I was no longer Michaela, I was just a girl with cancer like you see in sad movies like The Fault In Our Stars. I had a hard time recognizing myself and did not feel like the old me. Between losing over 50 lbs of weight before and during treatment and losing my long blonde hair, I knew that I had changed. I had also become weak and out of shape with puffy bloated cheeks and swollen limbs, having lost most of my muscle mass to long hours spent in bed without movement.
Looking back on it, I think feeling like this is normal. Cancer tends to swoop in and impact our identity in ways never imagined. I want to let you know that it is okay that you may not feel like yourself. It is okay to not feel beautiful, to feel lost, to feel like you don’t know yourself, to feel hurt, to feel alone. It is okay if you mourn the loss of the person you believed you once were. It is okay to grieve these changes.
I am sure some of you may have figured out that cancer is much like a series of rolling hills with steep ups and treacherous downs, and it is important to take each of these in stride. When you look in the mirror and no longer see yourself as the person you remember, just know that you are not the only one experiencing this loss and that there are communities out there to support you through this.
Maybe you’ve been reading this letter and not felt like much of this applies to you, and that’s okay! I’ve been busy talking about how to try and deal with some of the shit that cancer will put you through (and trust me, we’re talking a whole pile of it). But on days when life feels a little better, and cancer can sit on the back burner for a few moments in time, my greatest piece of advice is to just live!
I like to live life to the fullest on the days when I feel like I can! Make memories, take pictures, be present, do the things that fulfil me in ways that accommodate a new diagnosis. For example, throughout my treatment, I still tried to interact with horses and livestock as much as possible because horses have always brought me so much joy. And though I felt very weak and could hardly lift a saddle for myself, I allowed myself to participate in my favourite activities in a way that reflected my physical and mental health.
It is important to me to not let go of the things I once loved, but allow myself to work them into my life in ways that suit my needs.
In addition, I found there was no better time but the present to work on finding new hobbies and passions! You may be finding yourself with more down-time than you have experienced before. Maybe you will find comfort in writing about your experience, much as I have. Or perhaps you will find relaxation and stress relief from expression through painting or drawing. Creative outlets for managing stresses and integrating passions are a great way to take life back by the reins when facing cancer.
One final thought: Cancer sucks. I totally get it! But, looking back on my experience, there are so many ways to take a cancer diagnosis and own it.
I try to fill hospital stays with comfort and positivity in any way that I can, making use of my social circles and friends as both company and comfort, finding new social circles in communities of people that have similar experiences, recognize that it is okay to not feel okay, but know that when I do feel alright, it’s okay to take life back by the reins and immerse myself into my passions and hobbies in ways that accommodate my newfound needs.
I guess to conclude I must say: to the 8,300 young adults to be diagnosed with cancer this year, you’ve got this! Take this one day at a time, and make each day your own, just as you make this new adventure your own, and know that you have an entire community of peers standing behind you to support you every step of the way.