One in three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. 70,000 young adults are diagnosed each year. 54,000 Americans were diagnosed with my type of cancer they year I was diagnosed. I could continue on with statistics that I haven't actually read in four years, because like most survivors, these stats are permanently burned into my mind.
When I was diagnosed, there was little being done for the young adult cancer population, but just months after my diagnosis the first comprehensive resource site for young adults came into existence. The I'm Too Young For This Foundation (i2y) changed the isolation that I and every one of those 70,000 diagnosed felt.
I've been forced to reflect on my own cancer journey recently, because cancer seems to have re-entered my life. I knew the day would come when someone I knew as a normal, healthy young adult would enter the rabbit hole of cancer, but I didn't know it would make me feel the way it has.
I've been thinking practically about what I wish I had been told at the beginning. So here are my top five pieces of advice for surviving becoming a survivor:
1. It does get easier. That feeling of waking up every morning and asking yourself if the nightmare is over yet, will eventually fade. You will become a professional cancer patient, and your job will be to go to the doctor, take tests, and get infusions. While it won't be fun, it will become a routine, and that will make it easier.
2. People are freaked out by cancer. People can be scared by your cancer. They may not contact you because they don't know what to say, it brings up issues of loss that they are afraid to deal with, or they think you need space to come to grips with how your life has changed. Sometimes it is disappointing when someone you love can't stand to be around you as you go through this challenge, but it helps to remember those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter. Some people might resurface after your fight is over, others may never return. Let them go.
3. It really is all about YOU. If you want to eat ice cream for breakfast, eat it. If you feel like wearing your pajamas and a tiara to the grocery store, do it. If you want to celebrate your survival-at whatever time you deem appropriate-by going shopping, go for it. You have cancer. It's an excuse to do whatever you feel like, within reason, of course.
4. Connect. Feeling alone like a bald, emaciated alien sucks. You're not the only person with cancer, and you are not the only person who is dealing with it as a young adult. Join a support group (if you find a good one, the old people won't mind that you're young!), go on a retreat for young survivors, or locate young adult-specific support by phone/internet.
5. Know that this, too shall pass. You will not be in treatment forever. Life is good after cancer, in fact, it's better than it was before. I thought this was crap for a long time. It took a whopping two and a half years after treatment was over for me to feel like a whole person after cancer. Don't feel like a failure if you don't feel whole after a year or two. There will be recurrence scares, scans to stress about, and lumps that will send you screaming to your oncologist. This is all normal. You will emerge with an appreciation for life, understanding with death, and a wisdom that is well beyond your years. Cancer will change you, and it will be for the better.
Fight. Survive. Livestrong.