To Be Young and Sick

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A couple weeks ago, I met with a dear friend for coffee and catching up. After running through the latest updates on work, school and family, we got down to the nitty-gritty. What’s really going on. How we feel.

After years of respiratory issues, she was recently diagnosed with a chronic lung condition. While such a diagnosis surely brought some sense of relief and validation, not to mention treatment that has her feeling more healthy than she has in a while, it also has left her with plenty of anxiety and sadness.

I can relate. And as she shared her experiences and feelings, I nodded my head in commiseration. Sure, our conditions were different, but we both shared a common (yet uncommon) experience–dealing with serious illness at a young age.

When I was diagnosed and in treatment, I had so many tell me how lucky I was to be so young and strong. Surely my youth would see me through this. And in a way, yeah, that’s right. My young, strong body certainly equipped me to handle chemotherapy and surgery and all the other trauma of treatment better than an old, frail person.

But didn’t that young, strong body also fail me? Didn’t it betray me? Didn’t it allow me to be very sick and face my own mortality far too soon?

My friend and I shared our grief over losing trust in our bodies. It’s something a lot of people experience, but it wasn’t supposed to happen to us. Not now, at least, when we’re both still in what’s supposed to be the prime of our lives.

We also talked about the utter loneliness of being seriously ill at a young age. My friend related her experiences at the pulmonary clinic, surrounded by patients decades her senior. I knew exactly what she meant having experienced the same thing at the cancer center. While your peer group is doing totally normal things like having babies, traveling, advancing in their careers, you’re in a cycle of doctor’s appointments, trips to the pharmacy and hospital stays.

People your age can be sympathetic and kind, but they truly can’t understand how it feels to be thrust into this world of constant medical attention.

Then there’s the fear and anxiety. Being diagnosed with a serious illness at a young age casts a shadow over your life. Sure, you may be treated and be just fine. You may have clear scans and NED (no evidence of disease). But there’s always that fear lurking in the shadows that it’s going to come back. Or get worse. That the treatments that worked will fail. That the medication no longer does its job.

And when something like this happens to you at a young age, that fear seems almost amplified simply because you’ve got so much life ahead of you. There’s so much time for something to go wrong. You’ve seen the boogeyman, and you just know he’s waiting for you, but you don’t know which corner he lurks behind.

There’s never a good time to face serious illness. But to be young and sick seems especially cruel. Even if you recover (which some do not, an almost unfathomable truth), so much detritus still remains, so much is left to be dealt with. Figuring out the illness is but a first step on a long journey.

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