Getting ready to head to a pool party, I threw on one of my new one-piece bathing suits that covered just the right amount of skin. I looked in the mirror to make sure that all of my scars were covered. Looked good to me! I would NEVER let anyone see my scars, it was a dead giveaway that I had a problem. At least, that’s how I viewed it.
Rewind a little bit to the summer after my sophomore year of college. I was diagnosed with a rare form of adolescent liver cancer called Fibrolamellar. I was confused and VERY angry. Here I was, a normal ex-D1 lacrosse player who was about to transfer to Tulane!
Aside from my closest friends and family, no one knew about the cancer. When I had a recurrence and started continuous chemo biweekly, I still kept it private. My recurrence was the moment I began to realize that my cancer was a chronic disease that must be maintained for a lifetime (hence my lifestyle changes).
In a little bit more detail… the chemo that I started was not a normal treatment. I had a port, and my port was accessed for the entire chemo week. I didn’t have to stay in the hospital, I would return home and go about my business while I had a needle in my chest and a tube connected to a machine that I hid inside of my backpack. If the tube was kinked, the machine would beep. This was my BIGGEST fear! What if it beeps in the middle of class and people end up seeing my tube? Even worse, what if they end up finding out about the cancer? Thankfully, this never actually happened.
So ya, here I am, walking through Tulane campus with a tube connected to both my chest and my bag. I was constantly checking to make sure nothing was noticeable. At the same time, I had to put on an act. Night one of chemo I felt like absolute shit every. single. time. I casually had a 103 degree fever, chills, body aches, and nausea. Every interferon shot day – day 1, 3, 5, and 7 – meant symptoms. But I refused to act like I was in pain, all I wanted was to be seen as a normal girl. I continued to go to class, hang with friends, and go out at night (I stopped drinking but never explained my reasoning.) I chose to only wear clothes that covered all evidence of my stomach scars or my port – so going out always ended up being an ordeal.
As time passed, I kept up my act. Being with people who had no idea about what I was going through behind the scenes felt so refreshing – it maintained my denial. Having just transferred schools, the last thing I wanted was for people to be abnormally and in-genuinely nice to me. I wanted to meet my friends in it for the long-haul, cancer or not! I knew what the stigma behind cancer was, and I did not fit it at all.
Out of the few people who knew about my cancer, I would get the occasional “why are you keeping this a secret? You are so strong!” Hearing this upset me every time. I thought that people finding out meant that I would be treated as a representation of the cancer stigma – sick, hairless, low energy, dying girl. I wasn’t mentally ready to face acceptance of my diagnosis – I would even go as far to say that keeping this all private protected me.
Without enough mental stability and confidence, there is no way that I would have been able to maintain my positive attitude on life while people noticeably treated me differently. Positivity is a proven healer btw. Now, I am at a different point in my life. It has taken a full two and half years of slow and steady acceptance to get to this point of confidence. I no longer fear being treated differently, but I now embrace the ability to change the cancer stigma. It is NOT a death sentence!
I have learned to see the silver lining and the positives in my experience. My lifestyle changes that have evolved as a result of my diagnosis have created a passion in me to live healthfully and help motivate others to do the same. Looking at it positively, I am happy to say that I have found a passion in health and wellness.
Now that I feel strong enough in my friendships, my own confidence + security, and the power of my story, I am excited to finally get everything off of my chest and explain what it is like to be a 23 year old cancer fighter.