Emily VanKeuren

Emily is a 17 year old high school junior from Comstock Park, Michigan.  She tells her story in a paper submitted to her English Composition class.

Emily learned she was cancer free on March 6, 2017.

October 21st of every year will never be the same for as long as I live. It is the day I began my battle with cancer, and it is a day I will never forget. Cancer changes a person, not just physically, but mentally too. The physical change commonly comes from the treatment of chemotherapy. Chemo is typically given more than once a month, based on diagnosis and amount of cycles the patient needs. The National Cancer Institute says this about chemotherapy, “Chemotherapy (or “chemo,” as it is often called) is a method of cancer treatment that uses very strong drugs to eradicate, or kill, cancer cells”(“A Focus”).

It’s hard to understand what it is really like until you are experiencing it first hand. If you talked to any cancer patient in the world, regardless of the diagnosis and the treatment, I know they would tell someone all of the same information. In fact, my nurse Sharon at Helen Devos Children’s Hospital says, “I have not seen one patient walk out of this hospital the same person that they did when they walked in.”(Wilson). It changes people’s wonderings of life and makes them ask themselves  “what if?” more in one day than someone might their whole life. It changes schedules, and the routine someone thought they might have had, is gone. There are so many aspects in life that people look past and take for granted everyday, but not when you’ve had cancer.

The typical high school girl wakes up every morning wondering what she’d wear that day or if the boy at school would take even a quick look; with cancer it’s a completely different story. I don’t wake up everyday wondering what I’ll wear. I wake up wondering if I’ll even have the strength in my body to change my clothes that morning. And I don’t ever have to worry about the people at school or the public and if they’ll notice me because of course they will notice.

One cancer patient going through her second diagnosis of treatment says, “We should focus on life and love and beauty. Then something like cancer strikes. That car that’s been rolling along so smoothly comes to a bone-jolting halt. It’s almost like there is a target on my back or a big flashy looking sign saying “Hey over here! Look this girl has cancer.” At least that’s what it feels like. I can’t blame people for doing that though because I did the same thing before I knew It’d be me getting all the fingers pointed at.

“I don’t wake up everyday wondering what I’ll wear. I wake up wondering if I’ll even have the strength in my body to change my clothes that morning.”

Each day comes as a guessing game now. I wake up in the morning wondering if I’d have the will power inside of me to make it through a whole day of school, or how long it will take my hands to grow so weak they can’t even hold the pencil anymore. It’s questions like “when will the last strand of hair fall out?” or  “are you sure those steps aren’t too steep for you to climb?” that really stop me in my tracks everyday. And it’s the “what if I don’t make it to my 18th birthday?” or the “what if everyone gives up on me and I’m fighting all alone?” that really make me stop and think about life and how I might make my next decision. Those questions leave me desperately searching for an answer and it always seems as if I can never find them.
To see the bright side of everything though, cancer doesn’t always change people for the worst. Sometimes it’s for the better. For instance, I feel like a celebrity when I walk into that hospital. Everyone, all the doctors and nurses, and even the patients know who I am and why I am there. They look at me in a different way. It’s almost like I walk into a room and everyone there is my number one fan. Everyone is always rooting each other on, admiring their strength, pushing them to be the best that they can possibly be, but still having the understanding that sometimes it’s just too hard to go on. Someone can’t  find that kind of support outside of the hospital walls. But, the endless amount of support someone has and the love they do receive outside of the hospital is like way crazy, it’s almost, in a way overwhelming. All of a sudden I have a gofundme page and ten different churches and a thousand different families praying for me. It’s hard to let all of these people try and help me because I’ve always been so independent and always the one helping others. But I have come to learn to let people help because no matter how hard someone tries they will never be able to battle the cancer alone. I will never be able to say that cancer didn’t change the way I live my life, because it has.

“I have come to learn to let people help because no matter how hard someone tries they will never be able to battle the cancer alone.”

Everyday before the 21st of October 2016, was as normal day as any other until this happened. I used to think I had a pretty solid routine going for me and then one day it just all vanished. First, I had to quit my job and if there is anything in the world I hate more than losing, it’s quitting. But, between all of the doctor appointments and blood work ups, school and sports, it all became too much. School itself is a minefield to juggle, I finally think that I am all caught up and then it all blows up in my face. It’s like I think I am two steps ahead, but I am actually 2 steps behind. Before cancer I was a 3 sport athlete and now I feel like a “I’ve never played a sport in my life” person. All the energy I used to have is gone. All the sports and exercise in the world won’t make you feel as drained and run down as all the meds you have to take, while treating cancer. Sometimes it’s hard to wake up in the morning and drag myself out of bed.  And things that used to weigh 3 pounds to me now feels like it weighs a thousand.

The inevitable trait about cancer is that it doesn’t become just a part of someone’s life it becomes their whole life. They know the hospital like it’s the back of their hand, they know every oncologist and every nurse on the floor. They become what you call a “regular”. All these new terms and customs become something that cancer patients know all too well. I’m pretty sure a normal everyday person doesn’t know what the medicine bleomycin is or what the term PORT means. But if someone asked a cancer patient what either of those are they would probably laugh.

Things change, the things that someone thought were super important and high up on their priority list suddenly gets put on the back burner. I used to prioritize going out to hangout with my friends and making it a point to see them. But just like everything else that seemed to be changing, so did that. Since the chemo in my body has almost completely shut down my immune system it is too risky for me to go to public places, such as the movie theaters, a restaurant, and at some point even my own school is too dangerous for me to be in. The places that used to feel like such a safe place for me, no longer are. Hand sanitizer has become my best friend, and my enemy. My best friend because it is the best way to keep me germ free, and my enemy because of the gosh awful smell. I have to give myself a shot every night to boost my immune system. It has come to a point that I feel like I am living in a bubble. It’s just me, the tons of meds I take, chemo, and a hundred different people are all looking in on me with such pity. I am not going to lie either, at first it actually feels good to have people feeling sorry for you, but after awhile it gets to the point when it is just too much. It all gets overwhelming, the changes that are made and the things I have had to give up.

It isn’t all just the physical change. It is the mental change as well, the change of my day to day mindset. I recently read an article about a nurse consultant who has devoted her life to conduct an analysis method on the actuality of survivorship of cancer, she said, “A common trait linked to surviving cancer was uncertainty, where the toll of the physical and psychological effects and fear of relapse and recurrence was exacted over time”(Smyth). I have come to notice a pattern with this. First, the patient starts out so strong and so compassionate about wanting to beat the cancer, and everything’s going great. But then, they have that one day, it feels like the worst day of their lives, maybe even the last, and they want to quit. They want to give up, and make a wish that this would be happening to someone else, they don’t want it to be them anymore. It all becomes too much. Cancer patients have several of those days before they realize that this is all reality and until they toughen up to beat it, they’ll feel that way forever. So, something inside changes. The spark is reignited inside of them and this cancer has nothing on them. They have become so ready to take on the world. They start feeling great and so accomplished. And they have come to promise themselves, until the day the doctor says to them “You are cancer free.” that they will fight harder than they have ever fought before. That moment is one everyone looks forward to everyday.

 Cancer teaches people a lesson as well. It teaches them to always show compassion, and to know that everyone is fighting a battle. It may not be as tough as yours, but it might be the toughest battle they’ve had to fight. All the little aspects in life people may have taken for granted are now lessons that they cherish everyday. People now make it a point to tell the people that they are close, that they love them. And they sure as heck decide to start living life to the fullest that they possibly can. It almost sets a goal for people. I know it has for me. My goal is to live life with zero regrets, I want to live everyday like it might as well be my last.

Cancer isn’t all about the treatment and the cure that everyone is hoping for, it is about all of the other little battles, within the war. I will always remember my time as a cancer patient, and I will never forget the affect it had on my life. I hope for your sake that it doesn’t take being diagnosed with cancer, for you to understand the changes it brings upon some people. When you see someone who has cancer, don’t look at them with pity, look at them with inspiration. Take into consideration how much they are going through, acknowledge them, and then send them a little praise, because the things they face are a lot more difficult than the everyday, ordinary person.

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