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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Re-entering the World

Woman Walking Through Door into Meadow

This past weekend, I had my 20-year high school reunion. I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoyed high school (at least, as much as a person can), and I’ve even stayed friends with a core group from those days.

 

At points when we should’ve gone our separate ways, life has thrown curve balls that brought us back together. Our freshman year of college, a dear friend’s younger brother died in a car accident. My mom passed similarly in the middle of our college years, and several other friends lost parents or close loved ones in the couple of years following college graduation. We all rallied around one another in those times of strife, drying tears, offering shoulders to lean on and laughs to help dull the pain.

And from there we continued to see each other–weddings and all the accompanying hoopla turned into baby showers and christenings. Sure, sometimes years will pass before we see each other, but we’re the type of friends who can get together and it feels like no time has elapsed since our last meeting. We just pick right up where we left off.

As I danced and laughed and reminisced with them this past weekend, I experienced that strange feeling of being back with a group that was my world for a time, even though they no longer hold that status in my life. It’s strange to return to a place/group of people you once thought of as a sort of home when that’s no longer your day-to-day neighborhood.

I had this same sensation last week at the cancer center. For so much of this past year, that place has felt oddly like home to me. Its inhabitants–the doctors, nurses, staffers and fellow patients–they were my people. Just like my high school friends, they get me in a way few do. They understand a very important time in my life the way no one else really can.

But as I sat in the waiting room, my mass of chemo curls spilling around a headband’s tenuous grasp, I began to realize I no longer belong there the way I once did. And as my oncologist went over my whistle-clean lab work and told me I was going to be just fine, I felt this even more acutely. I don’t look sick. I don’t feel sick. I’m not sick.

And just like that guy who graduated five years ago and still hangs out at high school parties, I need to move on. I need to re-enter the world. I need to take cancer patient off my list.

My high school experience is a big piece of who I am, and those friends will always be a part of my life. Same thing with cancer. This disease has changed who I am. There will never be a time that I don’t return to this place, never be a time that it’s not part of my life. Just as my adolescent years helped shape me, so has my bout with this disease.

I don’t want to go back to high school or my teen years, and I don’t want to go back to being a full-time patient. But knowing those who were there for me during both those times will be there for me now, and in the future if I need them, is a great comfort.